Knox flood kills 1, wrecks homes; 3 trapped miners rescued

Flooding: One man killed, homes destroyed in KayjayTrapped miners: Three men rescued from Middlesboro minewater rose too quickly for some residents to evacuate

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 21, 2011 

KAYJAY — Standing in muddy waist-deep floodwater in his house early Monday, Buck Golden put his 4-year-old daughter atop a television stand and held on desperately as an entire mobile home sailed past his porch on a rushing current.

His daughter, Mackenzie, had a question that would break a father's heart.

" 'Daddy, are we going to die today?' I said, 'I ain't going to let you die if I can help it,' " Golden said. "All I could do was just holler for help."

A neighbor waded in and carried Mackenzie to safety, and Golden, 48, waded out behind them, he said.

Four inches of rain in three hours caused a creek to flood a hollow in a mountainous part of southern Knox County, along Ky. 225. The water boiled out of the creek sometime between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.

The creek runs through several communities, and damage stretched for 6 or 7 miles. Water washed some houses and mobile homes off their foundations and smashed them against bridges, trees or other structures.

One man died in the deluge; his name was not available Monday night. Some residents were trapped in their homes, requiring firefighters and neighbors to rescue them, and floodwaters damaged or destroyed more than three dozen houses.

It was thought at one point that two people were missing, but authorities later accounted for them, said Jerry Rains, Area 9 manager for the state Division of Emergency Management.

In neighboring Bell County, three miners were trapped in an underground coal mine, about 600 feet from the entrance, after runoff from rainfall flooded part of the mine, state and federal officials said.

The miners were rescued at 8:22 p.m. and taken to Middlesboro Appalachian Regional Hospital for evaluation. They were to be reunited with their families there.

"They all appear to be in good shape," said Dick Brown, a spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

The miners, trapped about 6:40 a.m., found a high spot underground and were safe. They were able to talk with officials outside the mine by phone. Officials pumped water out of the mine much of the day.

Brown identified the miners as Russell Asher, Doug Warren and Pernell Witherspoon.

The mine is owned by Bell County Coal Corp., a subsidiary of James River Coal.

Officials said they believe a diversion ditch failed, allowing water to flood into the mine.

Officials reported some of the worst flooding in at least 20 years in Middlesboro, according to the National Weather Service.

In Knox County, two people were taken to a hospital for treatment after being pulled from a flooded creek, and debris injured one firefighter, Rains said.

Preliminary surveys showed that 12 homes were destroyed, 17 had major damage, and 14 had minor damage, Rains said.

"A lot of them, it's all they've got and, in an instant, it's gone," Rains said.

The tally of homes damaged might go up because some residents were not home when authorities came by.

The flood also damaged or destroyed numerous outbuildings, cars and trucks, other property and roads. A community ballpark was badly damaged.

Nearby churches opened shelters. Officials said to expect a good number of people, said Tom Patterson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Artemus.

Some residents said they think a coal impoundment that was part of a surface coal mine on a hill above Kayjay failed, dumping a wall of water into the narrow hollow below.

Such impoundments are used to store water and fine particles left from washing coal, or to catch runoff from mines.

Rains said officials will investigate whether the impoundment failed.

Residents said the water rose very quickly, leaving some with no time to get out of their homes.

"There was a lot of water that came at one time — quick," Golden said.

Pam Sears, 47, said her son Jeffery and his wife, Martha, waded through rising water to get to her house, which is across Ky. 225, farther from the creek and slightly higher.

The water washed away Jeffery Sears' mobile home and rose to a depth of about 2 feet in his mother's house. The family sat on a table to ride out the flood, which they said lasted 60 to 90 minutes before the water went down.

"We're just lucky to be alive," Pam Sears said.

Nearby, the flood lifted Joe and Shirley Senters' wood house from its foundation and carried it several hundred feet, dumping it across the road from Pam Sears' house.

Sears said the Senterses are older and have health problems, and they couldn't get out of the house.

"They were just hollering, screaming, praying, asking someone to help them," Sears said.

Sears said her husband, Jeff, and her son and another man helped the couple out of the house.

Just down the creek, Golden helped find a neighbor trapped in the creek after he got out of his own flooded house.

The flood washed away a mobile home where an older woman lived with her son, pushing the structure against a bridge 100 to 125 yards away.

Golden said he and two other men went into the water and started pulling away pieces of the smashed mobile home. He heard what sounded like someone choking and then saw the woman's head sticking out of the debris.

Rescuers pulled the woman to safety.

"That's a miracle," Rains said.

John Bays, chief of the Artemus Volunteer Fire Department, said he understood that the woman, identified by neighbors as Wilma Pate, was doing well at the hospital.

The sun broke Monday on a scene of devastation, with gooey mud coating the ground and the floors of many homes.

As authorities went house to house to check on people and crews used heavy equipment to clear debris from the roads, weary residents began cleaning their homes or sifting through what was left of them to try to salvage pictures and other possessions.

"As long as we're alive, we can start over," Pam Sears said. "That's all you can do."

Herald-Leader reporters Linda J. Johnson and Karla Ward contributed to this story.

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