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Grundy Mining Company, Inc.
No. 21 Mine Explosion

Whitewell, Marion County, Tennessee
December 8, 1981
No. Killed - 13

MSHA Final Investigation Report  (7.2 Mb)  PDF Format
Official List of Fatalities  PDF Format

At approximately 12:00 midnight on December 8, 1981, an explosion occurred in 003 section of the No. 21 Mine of Grundy Mining Co., Inc., located at Whitewell, Tennessee.  There were 56 men in the mine when the explosion occurred; 13 died, 43 survived.  Six remained underground to participate in the recovery operations, and the remainder escaped to the surface.

MSHA investigators concluded that methane accumulations in the Nos. 2 and 3 Left gob off 5 Right flowed through a 1.22-m by 2.13-m (4-ft. by 7-ft.) hole and test boreholes in No. 2 and No. 3 entries of 003 section.  Because intake air to the section was short-circuited from the faces at a crosscut between No. 2 and No. 3 entries (3 crosscuts outby the faces), methane migrated into the 003 section from the faces of No. 2 and No. 3 entries.

It was concluded that a miner using a cigarette lighter ignited the methane-air mixture, causing the explosion.  Apparently the miners saw the burning flame front just after ignition.  This observation is supported by the fact that 12 of the 13 victims were headed outby when they were overcome by the explosion.  In further support of this conclusion, personal effects (miners' hats, a hammer, two flame safety lamps, and a jacket) were located inby the bodies of the victims.

These observations indicated to the investigators that the miners were traveling away from the ignition source.

Conditions and practices that contributed to the explosion include:
  • The failure of miners and management to abide by smoking prohibitions.

  • The failure of management to provide ventilation controls necessary to maintain adequate ventilation in the 003 section and to maintain an effective bleeder system for the 5 Right abandoned area.

  • The failure of management to remove miners from the area affected by methane migrating from the intersected 5 Right abandoned area.

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

Explosion Kills 13 Coal Miners
Galveston Daily News, Texas
December 9, 1981

Palmer, Tenn. (UPI) -- A mineshaft explosion killed 13 coal miners nearly a quarter of a mile deep in a remote Tennessee mountainside Tuesday, bringing to 25 the death toll in six days of Appalachian mine disasters.

William B. Allison, president of Tennessee Consolidated Coal Co., announced about 10 p.m. EST, nine hours after an explosion ripped through a shaft of its No. 21 mine, that rescue teams had reached the miners and "there were no survivors."

Mine disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky had already killed 12 men since last Thursday.

Company officials broke the news to the miners' sobbing wives and children, who had gathered in a lunchroom of the mine office to await the dreaded announcement.
"There were 13 miners working in the area," Allison said.  "Recovery operations were started immediately.  All 13 miners were located and there were no survivors."

"An investigation will be conducted immediately to determine the cause of the explosion, and as this information is obtained we will release joint statements.  Names are being withheld until the next of kin can be notified."
The 13 men were buried 1,200 feet deep in the mineshaft, about 30 miles northwest of Chattanooga, authorities said.  Rescue teams with oxygen respirators worked half-hour shifts in bitterly cold weather to reach them.

Roy McCarter, deputy commissioner of the state Labor Department, said in Nashville the men were trapped in an area about 1,200 feet from the mouth of the shaft, which extends horizontally through a mountainside.  The rescue teams, he said, were digging through the rubble in the shaft rather than trying to bore a new tunnel.  There was no indication, he said, of how extensive the collapse was.

About 40 wives, children and other relatives of the trapped miners were secluded in a room at the company headquarters, about three miles from the mine.  Four company workers guarded the door to the room and refused to allow reporters to talk with the relatives.

Barricades were set up on a road about a mile from the mile and only emergency personnel were allowed beyond the barricade.  Sheriff's deputies, evidently taking their cue from the mine company, refused to talk to newsmen.

Mike Caudill, information officer for the State Civil Defense Office, said the men were working gingerly to reach the miners.
"They had to go in with self-contained breathing apparatus because of the atmosphere in the mine.  What they are digging with, I couldn't tell you.  They do have jackhammers and this type of equipment but since they are working in a collapsed mine they have to make sure it doesn't collapse on them, too," Caudill said.
Caudill said the Civil Defense, which set up a command post near the mine, flew a third rescue team to the mine by helicopter from nearby Caryville to join the first two teams.  He said workers were also brought generators and lights to the desolate mountainside.

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