BROOKWOOD, Ala.—Two thousand feet below the rolling, wind-scrubbed hills, in a remote section of North America's deepest coal mine, the walls began to creak and pop.
In a dark corridor about 100 feet away, two miners watched as long steel bolts anchored into the rock roof began to snap and shoot to the floor with a metallic "ping."
"It's coming down," miner Mike McIe said to his partner, Gaston Adams Jr.
If the prospect of a roof collapse unnerved Adams, the 56-year-old mine veteran didn't show it.
He routinely faced down the perils of his workplace: the sudden cave-ins; the plumes of explosive coal powder that float through the mine in greasy, gray clouds; the pockets of methane gas that lie odorless and invisible against the rock.
But this day was different. The worst U.S. mine disaster in 17 years was about to unfold.
Water began to spout through fissures in the broken stone. Foreman Tony Key walked up behind the other miners nonchalantly as the rock collapsed with a sudden "whoosh."
"It's like the World Trade Center," Key remarked.
Then the deep mine unleashed its terrifying force. A drama of mortal courage, swift death and survival began.
A slab of rock smashed into a couch-size battery-charging station that hung from the gray roof by chains. A spark arced into a pocket of methane gas, federal investigators believe. The roaring explosion threw McIe more than 20 feet, burned Key and pounded Adams with chunks of rock.
Fanned across the 12-square-mile honeycomb of dark, 32 men labored in Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine on the afternoon of Sept. 23, 2001. Through the simmering ash, a dozen of the miners ran or hopped on rail cars and streamed in to rescue "Junior" Adams and the mine.
They were met by a second, more powerful blast. Flames shot two-fifths of a mile up the ventilation shaft and spat out melted wreaths of plastic pipe and fragments of a miner's cap.
Thirteen men would perish--grandfathers, husbands, fishing buddies and war veterans who gloried in pulling hard fuel from the mine's mottled walls. Their courage, and the story of No. 5 Mine, attracted scant attention as the nation reeled in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A year later, with memories of the disaster still fresh among the miners and anger toward the company growing stronger, the story of what went wrong is still being pieced together.
Some surviving miners blame the company for the horrific death toll. Jim Walter routinely sacrificed safety for coal production, they say. And during the frantic 50 minutes between the two explosions, they say company supervisors issued misleading directions that led to miners' deaths.
Jim Walter officials declined to discuss many aspects of the tragedy, citing an ongoing federal investigation. But company executives said they ran the mine safely and tried to protect their workers from harm. The men acted on the miners code, Jim Walter officials say, and rushed in to rescue a fallen comrade, ignoring the perils ahead.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, the Labor Department division that enforces mine safety and issues citations, is still investigating the accident. The families of the dead miners and a few of the surviving miners are suing Jim Walter, although those cases remain in the early stages.
Amid the welter of accusations and defenses, certain facts have emerged from MSHA case files, internal company records and interviews with miners.