HOLMES MILL, Ky. – Autopsy findings indicating that three of five eastern Kentucky coal miners killed in an explosion died of carbon monoxide poisoning infuriated several family members still mourning their deaths.
The three men likely survived the initial blast but then died of carbon monoxide poisoning, Harlan County Coroner Philip Bianchi said Sunday based on preliminary autopsy results. The other two died from multiple blunt force trauma and heat injuries, probably because they were closer to the blast, he said.
Many family members recalled the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia. The January blast killed one miner, then spread carbon monoxide that slowly asphyxiated 11 others. Questions have since been raised about whether the Sago miners' air packs functioned properly.
"What they told me was when they found my husband, he had the rescuer on, and he was trying to get out," said Tilda Thomas, whose husband, 53-year-old Paris, was one of the miners who died of carbon monoxide poisoning Saturday.
Mary Middleton's 35-year-old husband, Roy, survived the initial blast but also died from the poisoned air.
"It makes me upset that he smothered to death," she said. "They need to have more oxygen for them."
George William Petra, 49 also died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Two others — Amon Brock, 51, and Jimmy D. Lee, 33 — died from the explosion, Bianchi said. The cause of the blast early Saturday at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County remained under investigation.
Officials worked to repair the ventilation system so investigators could enter the mine, possibly Monday. Remaining pockets of methane gas had been a concern at the underground mine operated by Kentucky Darby LLC and located about 250 miles southeast of Louisville near the Virginia border.
A man who answered the phone at a Kentucky Darby office declined to comment Saturday, saying the company was too busy. Later, a man identifying himself as a foreman also declined comment.
Officials were investigating whether the breathing devices used by the miners were working properly. Bianchi said officials may be able to determine how long the three miners lived before they succumbed, but that would depend on their toxicology reports. He did not say when those reports would be completed.
Paul Ledford, the lone survivor, told his brother that his breather only worked for about five minutes.
"It's about having something to survive, they need to keep up with the technology," Jeff Ledford said. Ledford survived by crawling away from the blast. Rescuers eventually found him.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher told ABC's "Good Morning America" Monday that the breathing devices "should last much longer than five minutes."
"We have to look and make sure this is the best technology available for the miners," Fletcher said.
Kentucky legislators responding to the deadly accidents at mines across the country, including the Sago blast, passed a measure requiring mines to store breathing devices underground and to set up lifelines to help miners find their way out. But the law does not take effect until July.
A U.S. Senate panel last week approved a bill that would require miners to have at least two hours of oxygen available instead of one as required under the current policy. It also would require mine operators to store extra oxygen packs along escape routes.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration recently issued a temporary rule requiring coal operators to give miners extra oxygen, but miners and their advocates have been pressing Congress for a permanent fix.
Although it is not yet clear whether the proposed legislation would have made a difference at the mine in Holmes Mill, some said the coroner's findings show a need for improved oxygen supplies.
"It does sound like they didn't have enough oxygen readily at hand," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for United Mine Workers of America, which supports legislation that would increase miners' oxygen supplies.
Saturday's explosion was the deadliest mining incident in the state since 1989, when 10 miners died in a western Kentucky mine blast, state officials said. The national death toll from coal mining accidents this is 31, with 10 of them in Kentucky.