According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), there have been 10 multiple fatality explosions in underground coal mines in the United States between 1968 and 2010. Thankfully, not everyone who has been trapped in a mine collapse has been killed, and many remember what it’s like being buried alive in a mine. Those who have escaped mining deaths describe these accidents as claustrophobically and existentially threatening as you might imagine. However, it can also bring a sense of camaraderie and peace that perhaps is only possible when you're staring directly into the face of your own demise.
As you'll see, the majority of mining disasters that have recently taken place in the U.S. could have been avoided if a few greedy individuals had heeded federal regulations intended to create safer working environments for miners. Read on to hear the voices echoing up from the subterranean chambers and imagine what it's like to die in a mine.
The Farmington Mine disaster took place at the Consol No. 9 coal mine near Farmington, West Virginia in 1968. It was a disaster of such magnitude (78 miners perished) that it brought about the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, which increased safety requirements and regulatory oversight for coal mines. Although the cause of the massive blast and collapse is unknown, the presence of both methane gas and coal dust were detected in the aftermath of the explosion.
According to the CDC, coal mine explosions can occur with the presence of only one of the two when it comes into contact with a heat source. In Farmington, coal dust and methane gas in tandem with inadequate ventilation created a highly combustible combination. Despite the passage of the 1969 Act, the continued presence of these combustibles, combined with poor safety and oversight, have continued to create similar explosions in the U.S.
It Reeks Of B.O.
Survivors of the 2010 Chilean mine collapse recall the air inside their tightly shared quarters becoming fetid with the odor of human sweat. The underground heat, combined with a lack of fresh air, cooked a special, soupy human stench that the miners had to endure for nearly 70 days. One miner described it as akin to the smell of death, saying, “I’ve smelled corpses before, and after a while, it smelled worse than that.”
The Air Is Toxic
Federal investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration had to wait for over two months to enter the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia after a fatal explosion. Why the delay? Because the buildup of toxic gases inside the mine was so high that it was unsafe for investigators to enter.
Underground mines are highly susceptible to the release of toxic gases, including methane, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrogen dioxide (not to mention coal dust). That's why proper ventilation is essential for both the stability of the mine and the health of the miners. However, whether through willful or sincere ignorance, the majority of mine explosions result from the buildup and combustion of these gases. Some miners who survive an initial blast and collapse will fall victim to the gases that can fill a mine following an explosion.
You Could Drown
The Knox Mine disaster, which took place in Pittston, Pennsylvania, wasn’t caused by a toxic-gas induced explosion. On January 22, 1959, the Susquehanna River poured into the Knox Mine, drowning 12 miners in millions of gallons of frigid water. William Hastie, a survivor of the event, remembers a “violent torrent, a great roar” as the water rushed in.
The disaster was the result of the willfully unsafe mandates of Knox Coal Company officials. They had miners illegally tunnel beneath the Susquehanna without a sufficient roof to hold back the river overhead.