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Westmoreland Coal Company
Ferrell No. 17 Mine Explosion

Uneeda, Boone County, West Virginia
November 7, 1980
No. Killed - 5

MSHA Final Investigation Report  (1.4 Mb)  PDF Format

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This is an interim report of the investigation of a coal mine explosion that occurred at approximately 3:30 a.m. on November 7, 1980, in the Ferrell No. 17 Mine, Westmoreland Coal Company, Uneeda, Boone County, West Virginia.

The explosion occurred in 1 east 2 south and resulted in the deaths of five miners.  Rescue and recovery efforts commenced on November 7, 1980, and the bodies of the five miners were recovered on November 8, 1980.  On November 11, 1980, the decision was made to build seals outby the affected area.

The seals were completed on November 13, 1980.  On November 12, 1980, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) began an investigation of the explosion.  The sealing of the area of the mine affected by the explosion prevented the MSHA investigators from completing the underground portion of the investigation.

General Information

Mine Layout and History

The Ferrell No. 17 Mine, in the vicinity of Uneeda, Boone County, West Virginia was opened in 1972 into the Cedar Grove coalbed.  The height of the coalbed varied from 32 to 60 inches.  All mining consisted of development work until July 1980, when retreat mining began in 1st and 2nd right off 1 south.

Belt conveyors were used for coal haulage, and track with trolley wire was used for transporting miners and supplies.

Coal was produced at the face with continuous mining machines and transported to the belt conveyors by shuttle cars.  There were six production units at the time of the explosion with none operating on the midnight shift.  About 2,000 tons of coal was produced per day and 207 miners were employed on the surface and underground.

Methane Liberation and Inspection Schedule

The mine liberated 351,000 cubic feet of methane in 24 hours and was on a 15-day spot inspection schedule.  The mine was also on an annual ventilation impact inspection schedule as well as a weekly ventilation spot inspection schedule because of the methane liberation.  The annual ventilation impact inspection for the year 1980 had not been conducted at the time of the explosion.

Explosion and Recovery Operations

Gary Neil, Midnight Shift Supervisor, had the overall responsibility for the activities on the third shift at Westmoreland Coal Company's Ferrell No. 17 Mine.

On November 6, 1980, at approximately 11 p.m., Neil reported for work at the Ferrell No. 17 Mine.  Shortly after arriving at the mine, Neil telephoned McClure for the work assignments for the 12:0l a.m. to 8 a.m. shift on November 7. 1980.  In addition to other work assignments, Neil was instructed by McClure to have track rails removed from 2 north 3 east, an area where mining operations had been discontinued.  Neil instructed Workman to send five miners into 2 north 3 east to retrieve rails.  Workman subsequently assigned Howard Gillenwater, designated crew leader, and four other miners the work of removing the rails from 2 north 3 east.

On Friday, November 7, 1980, at approximately 12:01 a.m., the midnight crews entered the mine.  Howard Gillenwater, Freddie W. Pridemore, Carlos Dent, Howard Williamson and Herbert E. Kinder III, laborers, boarded their locomotive and traveled to 1 east to get a rail car located about six crosscuts inby the intersection of the 2 north and 1 east.  They then proceeded to 2 north 3 east.  Upon arrival in 3 east, the miners encountered a roof fall across the track entry about two crosscuts inby the intersection of 2 north and 3 east which prohibited further travel into 3 east.  At 1:30 a.m., Gillenwater notified the dispatcher that he was leaving the inby end of the 2 north and was going to 1 east 2 south.

Neil, who was in 1 south 1 left section when he received the call from Gillenwater, left that section and traveled to 1 west 2 left to deliver a pipe wrench.  After spending some time observing the miners, Neil left the section.  He arrived at the intersection of 1 west and 2 left at approximately 3:30 a.m., at which time the mine electrical power went off.  The dispatcher informed Neil that both the AC and DC power were off in the entire mine, but that he did not know what the problem was.  Heater, who was in the 1 south 1 left section, called Neil and reported that the power was off and that he had felt a concussion of air. Neil received several calls from different miners throughout the mine that they had felt a concussion of air at about the same time the power went off.

Neil decided to walk back to the slope bottom and disconnect all transformers and directly connect the main power cable leading underground to one rectifier which would provide DC power to the trolley wire circuit.  After the necessary switching of the power cables was completed, Neil informed Dolin to put the power back on in the mine, and the power stayed on.  Neil told Price to get a mantrip vehicle and accompany him into 1 east.  A deadblock was located in the trolley wire circuit of 1 east just inby 2 north.  Neil placed a wire jumper across the deadblock so the inby trolley wire could be energized.  They traveled into 1 east to within 8 or 9 crosscuts of 2 south when they met Blair.  Blair informed them that he had encountered smoke near the outby end of 2 South.  Neil and Price proceeded, on foot, in 1 east to 2 south where they encountered dense smoke.  They immediately retreated to where they had parked the mantrip vehicle.

Neil and Blair made another attempt to travel into 2 south.  Reportedly, they traveled about nine crosscuts into 2 south where they encountered permanent stoppings that had been blown out and dense smoke.  They retreated to No. 40 crosscut in 1 east and waited for Price to return with Jones and McClure.  Jones and McClure arrived at the mine and immediately went underground to 1 east where Neil and Blair were waiting.  After confirming that an explosion had occurred, they instructed Connie Chewning, Safety Inspector, to call the mine rescue teams of Westmoreland Coal Company and request their assistance in the rescue and recovery operation.

Activities of MSHA Personnel

On November 7, 1980, at 7: 15 a.m., Bart Lay, Jr., Deputy Director, West Virginia Department of Mines, called Herbert Pauley, Coal Mine Inspection Supervisor, Madison Field Office, to inform him of the possibility of a fire or explosion at the Ferrell No. 17 Mine, Westmoreland Coal Company.  Several coal mine inspectors were dispatched to the mine to assist in the recovery operation.

Westmoreland Coal Company's Hampton No. 3 mine rescue team entered the mine at 8:45 a.m.  The team found that a concrete block stopping originally located in the No. 68 crosscut to separate the No. 5 intake entry from the No. 4 belt conveyor entry had been removed and that a check curtain had been partially installed.  The partially installed check curtain permitted air the travel through the No. 67 crosscut and return down the belt conveyor and track haulage entries.

A joint decision, by representatives present at the No. 9 crosscut, was made to make initial explorations of the explosion area up to the No. 17 crosscut in 2 south.  Four members from each of the rescue trams proceeded under oxygen inby the No. 9 crosscut.  The remaining team members served as a back-up team.

The exploration revealed that the concrete block stoppings were completely blown out between Nos. 2 and 3 entries inby the No. 12 crosscut and between Nos. 5 and 6 entries inby the No. 9 crosscut.  The stoppings were blown from left to right, i.e., from No. 2 entry toward No. 6 entry.

On November 8, at approximately 12:30 a.m., the Stonega Division No. 2 mine rescue team, Westmoreland Coal Company, traveled inby the second fresh air base and began exploring inby the No. 24 crosscut.  At approximately 1:15 a.m., they found the bodies of two miners in the vicinity of No. 26 crosscut in No. 4 entry.  The team returned to the fresh-air base to report their findings.  At approximately 2:20 a.m., the bodies of three more miners were located by the Stonega Division No. 1 mine rescue team in the No. 4 entry.  Two bodies were between Nos. 26 and 27 crosscuts, and one body was at the No. 27 crosscut.  All five bodies were in the vicinity of the locomotive and rail car.

The bodies of the five miners were brought to the surface at approximately 10:25 p.m., on November 8, 1980, and transported by ambulance to the Boone County Memorial Hospital in Madison, Boone County, West Virginia, for examination by the county coroner.

Sealing Operations

Westmoreland Coal Company developed a plan for sealing the 2 south area.  Seals were to be constructed in all entries of 1 east between the Nos. 64 and 65 crosscuts.

Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States - Volume II

Rescue Workers Find Bodies in West Virginia Coal Mine
Indiana Gazette, Pennsylvania
November 8, 1980

Robinson, W. Va. (AP) -- Rescue workers wearing gas masks to guard against deadly fumes early today located the bodies of five miners trapped by an explosion deep inside a coal mine.

The bodies were found at about 2 a.m. EST, a little less than 24 hours after a blast and fire in an isolated section of Westmoreland Coal Company's Ferrell No. 17 mine unleashed toxic methane fumes.  The blast was so strong that it blew large cinder blocks 150 feet, according to United Mine Workers President Sam Church.

"If the explosion had not extinguished itself, it could have been considerably worse," said Everett Acord, UMW safety director.

Rescuers left the bodies where they were, in area about 2 miles into the mine and 300 feet deep.

They did not intend to remove them until the gas has been flushed out, according to Charles Brinley, a Westmoreland vice president.

Steve Anderson, Westmoreland's chief spokesman, said the blast was caused by a buildup of methane resulting from improper ventilation and said the company took responsibility for the accident.

"Westmoreland is taking the blame for this.  The lawyers would jump all over me if they heard me say this," Anderson said.  He said he did not know exactly what went wrong with the ventilation system.

He described the deaths as an "unnecessary and unhappy event."

The five "more than likely were killed instantaneously," Acord said.

"It looked to me like they were all pretty close together," Acord said.

Two of the bodies were found near the engine of a shuttle car and the other three were found nearby, Brinley said.  It appeared that the first two had been blown out of the engine, Church said.  "One had been blown some 50 feet," he said.

Miners' families and ambulance crews had kept a grim vigil at the entrance to the mine as the rescuers worked.  Officials had held out little hope that the men would be found alive.

"It doesn't look good," Church had said after flying to the southern West Virginia mine from union headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Gov. Jay Rockefeller also went to the scene.

"Everybody's scared.  You don't know what to expect," said Roger Hooker, a rescuer who stood outside the mine waiting his turn to go in.

The five miners were repairing shuttle car tracks when the explosion occurred and a fire broke out.  The nearest miners, working about a mile away, did not initially realize what had happened, and that delayed attempts to rescue the five, company officials said.

Rescuers were then hampered by fumes.  Air in the shaft became un-breathable within 6,500 feet of the trapped miners, and the rescuers were forced to rebuild the mine's ventilation system as they moved along, officials said.

The victims -- all from Southern West Virginia -- were:
  • Howard Williamson, 39
  • Carlos Dent, 39
  • Fred Pridemore, 26
  • Herbert Kinder, 22
  • Howard Gillenwater, 28

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