November 24, 1968
Farmington, West Virginia
Reopening Tomb for 78 Men
WASHINGTON(AP) - Slowly, agonizingly slowly for the relatives of the 78 men whose bodies lie below, the seared walls of Mountaineer Coal Co's No. 9 mine are cooling off.
And as steel bits chew through the West Virginia mountain shielding the shafts and tunnels, officials prepare the plans to enter the mine for the recovery expedition and the first step in resuming digging.
Already developing are signs of a struggle between the coal company and the United Mine Workers over the reopening.
Closed for 8 Months
Consolidation Coal Co, parent firm for the Farmington, WV mine, has proposed two methods for reopening No. 9, closed now for eight months.
"We want a faster method," said Lewis E. Evans, formerly of Ebensburg, PA, safety director for the union. "Our first consideration is to remove the bodies - to get them out and do it safely."
James Westfield of the U.s. bureau of Mines, which is considering the plans, said safety is his first consideration. As to the company's plans: "We have found nothing wrong with them," he said.
Evans said the union has no specific proposals for entering the mine, but he said he will discuss the matter with the company.
Officials have yet to set-or even discuss-any date for cracking the cement caps blocking oxygen from the firses which ravaged the mine for 10 days before it was sealed off Nov. 30.
Westfield, when pressed by a reporter, said he would guess the mine can't be opened for at least another two months.
An explosion which killed 16 men at the same mine in 1954 kept the pit sealed four months.
Westfield said three indicators - Carbon monoxide, oxygen and temperature - which point to whether fires are still burning have dropped to points where it appears the mine is near the reopening stage.
Concentration of Methane
But concentration of deadly methane gas is as high as 67 percent in some places. A 2 percent concentration will kill a man. Explosions can be sparked when the figures are between 5 and 15 percent.
After miners begin pressing into the deadly section of the mine where the bodies are located, progress will be slow.
The traditional method-airlocking-allows the recovery teams to move 1,000 feet at a time through the 10 miles or so of passageways as they ease ahead of one seal, explore an area and erect another seal.
A second and newer method suggested by Consolidation is what the drilling already going on in Farmington is about.
Under this plan, blowers clear 3,000 feet of tunnel through one bore hole, a new seal is installed and another bore hole is drilled.
The bore holes won't be opened until the Bureau of Mines decides which method it prefers.
The November disaster has had heavy impact in spurring coal safety legislation.
Westfield also hopes reopening the mine will have an impact on the safety techniques available to engineers.
"I'm quite sure we will find out what caused this explosion and we will take corrective measures to prevent another one," said Westfield.
"We hope to learn from this one, God forbid we should have another one.