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10 Years Later, Remembering One Of The Nation's Worst Mine Disasters

Ten years ago today, as a horrified America struggled to respond to the September 11 attacks, 13 coal miners died in multiple explosions at the Jim Walter Resources coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama.

The overwhelming and justifiable attention to the thousands of deaths in New York, The Pentagon and Pennsylvania 12 days before kept the Jim Walter mine disaster in the shadows. It was the nation's worst mine disaster in nearly two decades and it involved a methane gas explosion, a familiar danger underground.

One miner was trapped by the initial explosion and he and 12 rescuers were killed by another blast. Patrick Rupinski of the Tuscaloosa News retells the tragic story in this piece today.

Rupinski notes that the initial citations and fines levied by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) against Jim Walter Resources were slashed severely by a federal judge. A $435,000 fine was eventually reduced to $5,000 and six of eight major violations directly related to the disaster were dismissed.

That doesn't bode well for the possible violations and fines that may grow out of the ongoing civil and criminal investigations into last year's Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia, which was the subject of a 16-month long investigation by NPR.

29 miners died and investigations by MSHA and an independent team of investigators blame failed safety systems and management practices by mine owner Massey Energy. A federal grand jury is considering criminal charges.

Veteran coal industry reporter Ken Ward recalls on his Charleston Gazette Coal Tattoo blog today his remembrance last year of the Jim Walter disaster:

"It's worth remembering that the Bush administration's response to Brookwood was to proceed to dismantle the regulatory safety net intended to protect our nation's coal miners. Since then, we've seen not only Sago, Aracoma and Darby, but also Crandall Canyon and now, Upper Big Branch. Since that day in September 2001, 292 coal miners in the United States have died... "

Sago, Aracoma, Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch are all coal mine disasters.

Ward also quotes the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), who characterized the litany of coal mine disasters this way:

"First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America's coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster..."

So far, the criminal investigation of last year's Upper Big Branch explosion has resulted in one jail term. Massey Energy foreman Thomas Harrah was sentenced to ten months in prison yesterday for falsifying his foreman's certification and then lying about it to federal investigators. His crimes were discovered during the Upper Big Branch investigation but actually had nothing to do with the disaster.

The families of the 29 men who died at Upper Big Branch are still wondering whether anyone else will be charged and how far criminal charges might reach into the corporate ranks of Massey Energy.

Earlier this year, Massey was absorbed by Alpha Natural Resources but former Massey executives can still be held liable if investigators find evidence of criminal acts.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.