Scotia mine disaster of '76 remembered

34 years later, a marker tells of blasts' effect

dhjalmarson@herald-leader.comMarch 10, 2010 

  • Dust-exposure limits sought by MSHA

    WHITESBURG — The Mine Safety and Health Administration is trying to have new regulations to limit miners' dust exposure ready for public hearings in the fall, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Gregory Wagner said at a public meeting Tuesday.

    Data show that although incidences of black lung disease fell for about 30 years since the passage of legislation limiting dust levels in mines, for the past 10 years black lung has been on the rise again.

    That might be because mines have increased production, miners work more overtime, miners cut into more silica-rich rock to reach previously inaccessible coal seams, and operators' commitment to low dust levels "isn't what it should have been," Wagner said.

    Eastern Kentucky is a "hot spot" for black lung diseases, but not enough miners participate in X-ray screenings, studies and surveys, officials said.

    Sometimes mine companies discourage participation, said Anita Wolfe of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. She said miners sometimes avoid screenings because the sooner they find out they have black lung, the sooner they have to quit working, and the more likely it is that they will miss out on full-disability benefits. They see black lung as inevitable, so they want to work as long as possible, she said.

    Federal and state officials want to change that perception.

    "Act now," miner Scott Howard said, asking MSHA to implement lower dust-exposure limits immediately and to require personal monitoring devices that would continuously measure miners' dust exposure over an entire shift, instead of just eight hours.

    That's the direction the agency is going, Wagner said. Dust monitors have been tested and approved for use, and some companies already are using them, he said.

OVEN FORK — The family and community members sitting in folding chairs, listening to music and speeches about the Scotia mine disaster of 1976, don't need a highway marker to remind them of their loss.

The marker is for everyone else, and it's a long time coming, they said.

A marker placed on U.S. 119 at Oven Fork Tuesday marks the 34th anniversary of two explosions that killed 26 miners and mine inspectors in three days.

The first explosion, set off when faulty equipment ignited methane built up in a poorly ventilated mine, was on March 9, 1976.

The second methane explosion occurred two days later as miners and Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors reached the site of the first explosion to investigate and document problems in the mine.

Misty Griffith wasn't even born when her father died in the first explosion, yet she wept as Amazing Grace was sung in memory of Robert Griffith.

"It means everything to me that people remember," said Misty's grandmother and Robert's mother, Minerva Hayes, of Whitesburg.

The world paused and turned to Scotia that day, said Mike Caudill, CEO of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., which sponsored the memorial marker.

The day is "forever burned in the memories of those who lived here during that time," Caudill said.

The Rev. Wade Hughes still has his diary from that day. He was asked to break the news to families keeping vigil that no survivors would be coming out to meet them. "That moment and the following moments I will not try to describe," he said. "I had just come from a high decibel of expressed agony. I was really taken by how silent everything was."

Even though Scotia later became Blue Diamond and then the Cumberland River Coal Company, the union, one of few maintained in Eastern Kentucky, is still called the Scotia Employees Association, said union president Eddie Bentley.

"It changed coal mining," Bentley said of the disaster, which is cited in part as reason for passage of landmark mine safety legislation of 1977.

"We're here to remember. To honor men who died. We're here to remember why it happened and to make sure it never happens again," said Gregory Wagner, deputy assistant secretary for policy for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. "The facts of this are really pretty cold. ... The facts can't explain the human toll."

The men died because "production was chosen over the lives of the men who mined the coal," Wagner said.

"It's a long time coming," said Rose Kelley of Cincinnati, whose brother and cousin survived the first explosion but died before they could be rescued.

Her sister, Pat Huff, said she was glad something good came out of the disaster, and she said she thought her brother would have liked the ceremony on the sunny day in the parking lot of the union hall.

"There's not a day goes by I don't think of him," she said.

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