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Bodies of two Maryland miners found in collapse

April 21, 2007|By DAVID DISHNEAU

BARTON, Md. - Workers on Friday found the bodies of two miners who were buried for three days beneath the collapsed wall of an open-pit coal mine in Western Maryland, a federal mine official said.

Their remains were found in the cabs of the battered backhoe and bulldozer the men were operating at the bottom of the mine Tuesday when part the 150-foot high wall crumbled, filling the pit with at least 45 feet of rocks and dirt, said Bob Cornett, acting regional director for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Cornett said the men appeared to have died instantly. "With the extensive damage I saw on the equipment, I don't think that we worried whether they suffocated to death," he said.

Workers spotted both pieces of equipment side by side Thursday night after removing thousands of tons of debris. The machines were right side up but the belted tracks that propel the backhoe had been blown sideways and the blade had come off the bulldozer, Cornett said.

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Amy Louviere of MSHA identified the bulldozer operator as Mike Wilt, 37, and the backhoe operator as Dale Jones, 52.

The men worked at Tri-Star Mining Inc.'s Job No. 3 pit near Barton, about 150 miles west of Baltimore. Under MSHA's direction, the company used an enormous shovel and gigantic trucks to haul about 2,500 tons of debris an hour from the pit, with some lengthy delays, to reach the miners.

"After days of tireless efforts to cut through the rubble and reach the trapped miners, we were saddened to discover that the miners missing since the high-wall collapse on Tuesday morning have died," Richard E. Stickler, assistant U.S. secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a statement.

"We extend our prayers and deepest sympathies to their families."

"Now that the rescue and recovery phase has ended, MSHA is moving into its investigation phase of this accident to determine its root cause and prevent such accidents in the future," Stickler said.

Cornett said heavy rain and the ground freezing and thawing could be a factor.

Ambulances were summoned to remove the bodies from the scene, said Cornett, who choked up and wiped away tears as he delivered the news of the second miner's death.

"Mine safety means a lot to me," he said. "Every injury, every fatality, affects me."

He said the investigation would not begin immediately, as it would take time to make sure the site is safe, taking steps such as pulling all the equipment back from the collapsed area. Also, Cornett said, officials needed a break after four days at the site.

The mine was not cited for violations in its most recent inspection, which began March 5, according to MSHA. The mine employed 51 people at the end of 2006 and produced nearly 653,000 tons of coal last year.

The deaths brought to six the number of fatalities in U.S. coal mines this year. Last year, 47 people - 24 of them from West Virginia - died in the nation's coal mines. It was the highest toll since 1995.

Maryland's last coal-mining fatality, in February 2006, was the state's first since 1999.

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On the Net:

Mine Safety and Health Administration: http://www.msha.gov

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