The latest news from the Upper Big Branch mine is all bad, and it now appears likely that this disaster will be the deadliest mining incident since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 men in the Finley Coal Company's Mines No. 15 and No. 16 in Hyden, Kentucky.
Mining is a dangerous business. It's much safer than it used to be, but could and should be even safer. No one is calling the Upper Big Branch explosion an "accident," at least in part because Massey Energy, the company that owns the mine, has been cited for approximately 50 safety violations in that mine in March alone. At some point, the cumulative effect of these violations turns into willful disregard for employee safety, and these questions will come before the courts in short order.
If the death toll in the Upper Big Branch mine hits 29, as now seems probable, the disaster will still represent only a fraction of the total number of men who have died in American mines. (I say "men" advisedly. Women miners exist, but they are a small minority, and are more likely to be engineers or geologists than hands-on miners.)
The US Mine Rescue Association lists these as the five worst mining disasters in American history.
1. Monongah Nos. 6 and 8 Mines, December 6, 1907, Monongah, West Virginia. Death toll: 362. This is still the worst industrial accident in US history, killing almost everyone who was in either mine that day. Four men managed to escape, and one was rescued. One of the dead was a visiting insurance agent, there to sell policies to the miners. It was an explosion that spread through a ventilation connection between the mines; the mines' ventilation systems had been connected as a safety measure. When experts were able to enter the mine six days after the explosion, they theorized that a break in a trip of loaded cars caused some of the cars to break away and crash. The crash tore down some electric cords and created a cloud of coal dust, which ignited.
2. Stag Canyon No. 2, October 22, 1913, Dawson, New Mexico. Death toll: 263. Another explosion, this one caused by an overcharged blasting shot fired into a dusty pillar section of the mine. Again, coal dust throughout the mine ignited. Fourteen men managed to escape, and nine, stunned by the blast at the bottom of an airshaft, were rescued and revived with the use of the recently-invented Pulmotor.
3. Cherry Mine, November 13, 1909, Cherry, Illinois. Death toll: 259. In the early years of the last century, electricity in mines was still pretty primitive. On the day of the Cherry Mine disaster, it wasn't working, but 481 men and boys went to work anyway, using the old-fashioned lighting system: kerosene torches. Open torches. The mine used 40 mules to pull coal cars from the mineshafts to the elevator hoist. These mules were stabled underground, and ate hay. Bales of hay were dropped down the hoist, loaded into cars, and pushed toward the stable. One of these cars wound up too close to an open torch, and the mine caught fire. Heroic rescue efforts saved 222 men and boys; the last group, of 21 men, managed to survive eight days in the mine before a search party reached them.
4. Granite Mountain Copper Mine, June 8, 1917, Butte, Montana. Death toll: 164. The worst non-coal mining disaster in US history was a fire that started when the flame of a carbide lamp caught the uncovered, frayed insulation of a power cable. The fire spread to the mine's timbers, sending smoke and toxic gas throughout the mine. Of the 410 men working when the fire started, most escaped or were rescued. Almost all of those who died were killed by smoke and gas inhalation soon after the fire started. The fire burned for eight days.
5. Orient No. 2, December 21, 1951, West Frankfurt, Illinois. Death toll: 119. If I were writing a magazine article about mining disasters, I would look specifically at the correlation between these disasters and major holidays; too many of them, including Monday's explosion, seem to happen close to Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Is this just a coincidence, or a source of distraction and carelessness? This explosion was caused by the build-up of methane in abandoned panels of the mine, and sections of panels called "old ends." The mine's ventilation system carried air past these sections of the mine, bringing unacceptable levels of methane into active sections; the mine had been cited for this as recently as July of that year. 133 miners escaped the explosion and four were rescued, of whom one later died.