c64d2-southmountainmilwaukeejournal
Milwaukee Journal

December 7th, 1992 was a cold Monday morning. My brother and I were getting ready for school when the phone rang a little after 6:45 am. Mom answered and immediately went into the bedroom to wake my father. There had been an explosion at the South Mountain No. 3 mine and there was no communication with the men inside. The No. 3 mine was just down the road from where dad worked and owned by the same company. He knew several of the men who worked there, some of whom were friends of the family.

Dad immediately drove to Guest River to see if there was anything he could do to help. When he returned, his face was grim. He told us how the heavy black conveyor belts used to transport coal out of the mine were hanging over the power lines, that a drink machine lay destroyed on the opposing hillside from the mine having been blown across the hollow from the force of the blast, and that there was thick smoke billowing from the mine portals.

By midday, television crews and reporters from all over the nation gathered to inform the rest of the world. Local news showed the scenes just as dad had described. Smoke was continuing to pour from the mine portals as drilling crews worked around the clock hoping to breech the working section of the mine. It was the standard practice following a mine explosion,  necessary for taking air samples and looking for signs of life. Despite the bleak situation, we all held hope that the men working the # 1 Left section were still alive and that mine rescue teams could reach them in time.

As rescue efforts continued, mine owner Ridley Elkins saw fit to keep his other mine, Plowboy #4, running just up the road.  Dad still had to report to work for the evening shift, even though the coal seam they were mining was situated directly over top South Mountain No. 3. He knew that the holes being drilled were likely going to punch through the sealed sections of his own mine.

Dad and a few other miners protested the mine running while the rescue efforts were still underway. Not only did they understand the danger to themselves and their crew mates, they had difficulty working while knowing some of their friends could still be alive and trapped from the explosion. To this day my dad still recalls passing by the South Mountain mine lit up at night with emergency personnel and news crews swarming the area. “It was the hardest thing I think I ever had to do,” he once told me solemnly. “Go to work knowing them boys was still trapped in that mine.”

Two and half days later mine rescue teams reached the section. All eight men had perished.

David K. Carlton
Danny R. Gentry
James E. “Garr” Mullins
Mike D. Mullins
Brian Owens
Claude L. Sturgill
Palmer E. Sturgill
Norman D. Vanover

Elkins never shut down Plowboy #4—not even to give his other crews time to attend the funerals.  He only gave my father and two other miners time off, telling them coldly, “Just go home until them boys is buried.”  The day after the funerals, dad and several other quit. He later told me that he and the others called the federal mine inspectors and reported their concerns.

The following investigation revealed many problems at the South Mountain No. 3 mine. According the state report, the following issues contributed to the explosion:
  1. Improperly conducted weekly examinations for the No. 3 Mine and the 001 section on November 21-30, 1992. The certified examiner failed to examine the bleeder system in its entirety due to adverse roof conditions.
  2. An inadequately conducted smoking search program. Smoking material was found with three of the victims, and a lunch container was found to contain two full packs of cigarettes and two cigarette lighters.
  3. Failure to conduct a thorough preshift examination on the 001 section between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on December 6, 1992, for the oncoming midnight shift on the 1 Left 001 section.
  4. Improperly placed and maintained ventilation control devices.
  5. Failure to maintain the required incombustible content of the mine dust.
  6. Failure to follow the approved ventilation plan in the bleeder system inby No. 1 Left 001 section.
  7. Failure to provide the necessary volume and velocity of air in the 1 Left 001 section.
  8. Failure to conduct weekly examinations of the ventilation system at least every seven days.

But there was more to it than that.

The methane monitor on the continuous mining machine had been bypassed, allowing the machine to run (and continue producing coal) despite detecting explosive levels of methane gas. This, along with the failure of mine management (and some believe state and federal mine inspectors) to properly examine the mine ventilation systems—as mandated by law—led to ventilation problems that allowed methane to reach dangerously explosive levels. To save money on materials and labor, mine management had also failed to see that coal dust accumulations were kept in check by applying rock dust, an inert limestone powder meant to stifle coal dust’s ability to ignite when in the air.

Following the explosion, a great deal of controversy arose around whether state and federal mine inspectors had done their jobs, especially with whether or not inspectors had physically gone into the mine to inspect mine ventilation, safety equipment, coal dust accumulation, and rock dust application. It had often been rumored that inspectors would just sit out in the office trailer of the mine site, shooting the breeze with mine managers, and in some cases, even accepting “gifts” from small coal company operators.

For once, community members hoped that the defunct system of mine safety regulation would be seen for what it truly was, and maybe, just maybe, the system would be fixed. But during the investigation,  officials supposedly “found” cigarette lighters and cigarettes in one of the fallen miner’s dinner buckets and on their person. The smoking materials instantly became the focus of the disaster’s cause.

Family and friends of the fallen miners were outraged at the allegations.

People within the community, including other miners who worked at Elkins’ mining operations, suspected the cigarettes and lighters were planted during the investigation, put there to place blame on men who could not defend themselves. Many people still believe that this gave investigators a direct cause that would take attention away from the largest contributors to the explosion—the bypassed methane detector, the mine ventilation that was not kept in accordance with ventilation plans, the failure to keep coal dust under control by applying rock dust, and the failure of mine enforcement officials to properly inspect the mine for such flagrant mine safety violations.

Afterwards, lawsuits were brought against some of the mine management, including Elkins who would only spend six months in jail. The company was also fined $2,000,000, of which only a mere $900,000 was earmarked to go to the families of the fallen miners. This was the extent of punishment for the loss of eight men’s lives, men who worked hard just to support their families.

Several years later, the widows of the fallen miners filed a lawsuit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration for not performing their duty. The story made the papers when a federal judge exonerated the MSHA officials, stating the accident was a result of the mine owner’s failure to maintain safe working conditions.

Today, a drive up Guest River reveals little more than years of mining by various operations. Only those most familiar could find the site where the mine existed. There are no markers, no memorials or wreaths, only continued feelings of injustice for the eight loved ones who perished deep beneath the mountain.

7 Comments

  1. Reading this was hard, but every word the truth. My dad, my hero died that day and is way too often forgotten, as are the other men. Thank you Nick for this. God bless you and your family.
    Beth Mooney, proud daughter of Mike Mullins

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  2. For all of us that stood there and neverl left until they were out and realized they werent going to walk out in a miraculous wish, I really hope Elkins faces judgement the hard way because he has never had to have him hit it where he thinks it matters: hos wallet

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  3. The reason that a civil lawsuit against the Southmountain mine owners was not successful is because of the extremely restrictive workers compensation law in Virginia, which provides immunity to most wrongdoers, no matter how egregious their negligence. It's a little known fact in the Appalachian coalfields that most mine disaster victims get no financial judgment against the mine operators whose negligence/indifference has caused the disaster. The only compensation they get is workers comp benefits, which is wholly inadequate. Why you ask? Because industry has high-priced lobbyists who draft laws to benefit them and state legislators – who introduce and pass these restrictive laws – care more about protecting corporations than about helping working class people. The lone exception is West Virginia where coal miners and other blue collar workers actually have a decent chance of winning damages for corporate misconduct.

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  4. PROOF MONEY WALKS….. THEY HID MONEY IN THEIR WALLS LIKE MAFIA GODS. SO THEY CAN SIT ON THEIR FAT ASSES AND ENJOY LIFE WITH THE FINEST OF THINGS AND TOYS MONEY CAN BUY HOUSES , MOTOR CYCLES, BOATS, JET SKIES,HORSES ECT. ……RIDLEY SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN THE DEATH PENALTY. MY FATHER WAS SERIOUSLY HURT IN ONE OF RIDLEYS MINES…..MY FATHER WAS MY WORLD….. RIDLEY YOUR GOING STRAIGHT TO HELL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO THESE MEN AND FAMILIES & MAKING THE OTHERS GO RIGHT BACK TO WORK. YOUR A DEAD SOUL AND A HEARTLESS MAN….ONLY ABOUT MONEY ONLY GOES SO FAR…..

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  5. I found this on Google after listening to the haunting bluegrass song “Mine No. 3” by Amanda Fields. I had no idea things were still this bad, but I’m not surprised given the state of capital and labor in this country.

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