Willow Creek mine explosions
Some wounds run too deep to heal
By Mike Gorrell The Salt Lake Tribune
September 23, 2007
When the explosion happened in the Willow Creek mine, the only light Bill Burton had came from the face of this broken watch. On surviving a series of explosions at the Willow Creek mine north of Price 7 years later Even survivors of mine disasters do not escape unscathed.
If physical injuries do not haunt them, their memories do.
Such is the case with William Burton, David Berdan and Tyson Hales, three miners who were battered but lived through a series of explosions on a midsummer night seven years ago in the Willow Creek mine north of Price.
"I try not to, but I think about it quite often," said Hales of the blasts that killed two colleagues - Cory Nielsen and Shane Stansfield - and injured eight.
Like the Crandall Canyon mine, Willow Creek was deep underground. The massive weight of the mountain overhead made the mine susceptible to "bumps," mining lingo for a sudden release of pressure in the form of violent roof falls or wall failures.
Crandall Canyon attracted considerable attention when a catastrophic bump buried six miners Aug. 6 and a second implosion 10 days later claimed three more lives and wounded six would-be rescuers.
Willow Creek received limited coverage because only two miners died. But Willow Creek actually was known to be more dangerous than Crandall Canyon, for it was plagued by two additional hazards: methane and liquid hydrocarbons.
Highly explosive methane is common in mines. But liquid hydrocarbons, stinky substances with the consistency of diesel fuel, are not found outside of the Book Cliffs coal field in Carbon County.
Because liquid hydrocarbons are rare, they are not addressed directly in federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulations. So when the Utah Mine Safety Commission met Sept. 10, MSHA field office supervisor William Taylor said that if the state were seriously interested in making Utah coal mines safer, it would help devise ways to monitor and control liquid hydrocarbons.
"While it was a terrible situation in Crandall Canyon, any miner will tell you they have experienced bounces and bumps," Taylor said. "But when you look at hydrocarbons, it doesn't just have explosive gases but is an unknown entity when combined with coal dust and diesel emissions. We need experts in the field to develop health and safety standards."
Liquid hydrocarbons figured prominently in the explosions - three in eight minutes - that decimated a crew working in the Willow Creek mine July 31, 2000.
The 10-man crew was removing the coal seam with an 815-foot-wide longwall mining machine. Its cutting shear went back and forth slicing off the front edge of the coal seam while crew members performed tasks beneath hundreds of parallel shields - each shaped somewhat like an inverted 'L' - that held up the roof over their heads. As coal was removed, the hydraulically powered shields slid forward, allowing the rock overhead to collapse into the void left behind. That caved area is called "the gob."
While a methane scare shut down the longwall for about 40 minutes between 9 and 10 p.m., mining was proceeding at a good clip by 11:48 p.m., when a roof fall in the gob set off a methane explosion.
The impact knocked down several people, including Burton, the shift boss, and miners Hales and Berdan. None was hurt seriously. But they were propelled into fast action. The explosion had set ablaze some liquid hydrocarbons in the gob behind the shields.
While a couple of miners sprayed the fire with a hose, others hustled to gather fire extinguishers and bags of fire-squelching rock dust. Before they could do any good with these suppressants, however, flames migrated atop the liquid hydrocarbons to another methane pocket.
Kaboom! This 11:55 p.m. explosion hurled Nielsen into the steel shields, killing him. The 225-pound Burton was flung into another piece of machinery and knocked out. Others were burned, pelted with coal shrapnel or sent flying. Several lost their headlamps, leaving them in darkness.
A minute later, as they staggered toward evacuating the section, the third explosion hit. Stansfield, who was climbing into a low-slung "mantrip" vehicle to exit the mine, was thrown head first into a stack of wooden roof supports, each the size of a railroad tie. He died.
Berdan does not recall this explosion. But from what he has been told and his injuries, he suspects he was thrown backward into the mantrip, nearly ripping off an ear and opening a gash in his head. Hales probably bashed his head against the vehicle too.
When Burton came to, he crawled to the protective cover of an upended "shop car," a 6-ton vehicle that had been blown 100 feet back in a tunnel. He was assisted there by Roger McKinnon who, despite badly burned hands, got behind the wheel of the mantrip and drove Berdan and Kyle Medley to safety.
"The mantrip was just covered with black [soot]," Berdan said. "It blew all the back windows out, the taillights, everything. Roger scraped a little [clearing] in the windshield just to try and see so we could get out."
Rescue teams later brought out Burton, Hales and the bodies of Stansfield and Nielsen. By 4 a.m., everyone was out. The mine was sealed at 10 a.m. and has not reopened.
But in the seven years since, the long-term effect of that explosive night became evident.
Burton's 28-year career in the mines was over. Much of his social life, too. Hunting and fishing, things he'd done all his life, are almost impossible to do now. The explosions broke seven vertebrae, his left shoulder and collarbone; fractured a leg just below the knee and tore away the skin above and below the break line. His right arm was seared "and it burned my mustache off," he said.
"In all my years, I had never been hurt," added Burton, who was permanently disabled at age 49. "I still have a buzzing in my head. . . . I don't know how in the hell I made it through."
Berdan was a mess, too. He had a busted-up knee, cartilage torn loose from his ribs and a big burn on his back. When his wife, Lezlie, saw him at the Price hospital, she said, "I about passed out. His ear's hanging there and he's got these cuts you could see the bone in his head through. His hair was a melted mess [from hot coal shards]. My knees buckled, but I could not let him see how scared I was."
Hales was left with a damaged shoulder, neck injuries and brain trauma.
"I basically had to renew my brain - learn my ABCs and handwriting - because all that stuff was damaged," he said. "A vocational therapist helped me with my memory, taught me how to picture how to remember things and [associate] people's names with rhymes."
Recuperating mentally was tough for all three.
Hales, then 21, is troubled by dreamlike visions of Stansfield just before his death.
"I seen a counselor forever, asking 'why did I live and this other person didn't and we were in the same place? . . . Why this person with a family and two kids? Why couldn't I sacrifice my life for his? I was single,' " he said. "Now I'm basically scared of getting close to someone. . . . It's hard to get to know somebody knowing that something like that can happen to them."
Tears come to Burton's eyes as he talks of Nielsen and Stansfield. "That still bothers the hell out of me, losing those two kids. Their parents are so damned tore up." Him, too. "It will never go away. In my head, it never goes away."
Now 40, Berdan has adjusted pretty well. But loud noises make him jumpy and blowing sand triggers flashbacks of being peppered with coal shards. Like Hales, he has "survivor's guilt."
To cope with an upsurge of those feelings as he watched the Crandall Canyon tragedy play out, Berdan said "if there's something I could do to help them families, I'd try to get them a good lawyer like we had."
He was referring to a team of attorneys led by Fred Silvester of Salt Lake City. Through their efforts, the families of the two dead men and the eight injured miners secured an undisclosed settlement from the German company that owned Willow Creek.
Despite the horrific experience, most of the Willow Creek crew are still miners. Burton's not, but insists "if I hadn't been hurt this bad, I'd go back underground. It's all I've ever done since high school."
Hales worked in a mine warehouse outside of Farmington, N.M., but has returned underground to a relatively safe job building seals to close off mined-out sections. "I needed insurance, so I decided to make a sacrifice for my family," which now includes three young children.
Berdan was employed at the Tower mine in Carbon County before owner Robert Murray shut it down after the disaster at Crandall Canyon, also owned by Murray.
"I could be driving a truck and working up to 70 hours a week compared to working 40 hours a week and being home," he said. "I make more money in the mines. Money is the bottom line to mining. That's why it gets a lot of people."