Sunday, April 1, 2012

Judge George Wooton and the The Hurricane Creek mine disaster


The Hurricane Creek mine disaster occurred five miles from Hyden, Kentucky on December 30, 1970, shortly after noon, and resulted in the deaths of 38 men. As was often pointed out in coverage of the disaster, it occurred a year to the day after the passage of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. Recovery was complicated by the fact that a foot of snow fell on the rural mountain roads at the time of the accident.[1]

It was the most deadly mine disaster in the United States since the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968[2], and is the subject of Tom T. Hall's song, "Trip to Hyden". Another song about the disaster, "The Hyden Miners' Tragedy", by J.D. Jarvis, was issued as a 45 RPM on the independent Sunrise label (Hamilton, Ohio).

The disaster occurred at in shafts 15 and 16 of a "truck mine" owned by Charles and Stanley Finley, which had opened the previous March on leased land, although their company had been mining in the area for ten years. The small operation involved about 170 employees, who were not members of United Mine Workers.[1] 34 infractions had been reported in its first three months of operation, but they had been fixed, and the mine had been shut down for 3 days in June due to safety concerns.[3]

The Bureau of Mines had declared the mine an "imminent danger" due to blasting safety hazards in November 1970 but allowed the mine to continue operation. The hazards, which included excess accumulation of coal dust and electrical spark hazards, were discovered on November 19 and ordered to be cleaned up by December 22, but the agency was short of inspectors and could not reinspect on that date, as was required by law.[2] The understaffed agency needed about 750 inspectors, but only had 499 at the time of the disaster.[3]

The conditions would have allowed the bureau to declare the mine "excessively hazardous" and conduct inspections every 10 days, but they chose not to do so. The mine owners had been blamed by inspectors for the crushing death of a worker on November 9, saying the owners had failed to make required repairs to the underground tractor involved in the accident.[2]

This lack of enforcement of the new mining safety law was part of a wider problem protested by members of Congress, and union miners had gone on strike that summer to protest the lack of enforcement. The understaffed agency had, at the time of the Hurricane Creek disaster, failed to issue a single fine despite citing thousands of safety violations at dozens of coal mines.[2]

On December 30, 1970, the 38 day shift workers entered the 36" tall mine shaft at 7 A.M. and crawled to a depth of about 2,400 feet. The explosion occurred at about 12:10 P.M. The bodies were removed within 24 hours and the mine was sealed until an investigation could begin.[3] A lone survivor, A.T. Collins, was reentering the shaft after a lunch break and was blown out of the mine by the explosion. Collins was one of three miners who testified that he had seen primer cord - an illegal fuse - at the mine site.[4]

Illegal primer cord was found in the December 30 blast site, as well as at the site of a December 22 blast at the mine.

According to a memoir by James D. Ausenbaugh, who was editor of the Courier-Journal's state desk at the time of the disaster, one of the mine owners complained at the mine site about the 1969 mine safety law and those who had supported it. One of the bystanders, Leslie County Judge George Wooton, confronted the owner and beat him bloody. The owner was carried from the mine site and Wooton never faced any charges

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