TOPMOST — One night in November 1981, Roy Conley saw an unusual glow around the electrical center at the small underground coal mine in Knott County where he worked, and he took it as a divine warning.
Conley kept it to himself for three weeks, but the worry was making him ill. He broke into tears when he finally told his wife: "I feel in my heart I'm going to get killed."
He skipped the next work day at the Adkins Coal Co. mine at Topmost.
But with young children to feed and bills to pay, he went back on Dec. 7, 1981 — the day the mine blew up, killing eight men less than an hour into their shift.
It was the worst mine disaster in the county's history.
The blast was part of a string of disasters that quickly focused scrutiny on regulators and coal-industry practices. Lawmakers strengthened safety rules, but another 1,518 U.S. miners, including 445 in Kentucky, would die on the job in the next three decades.
'Bound to get killed'
One of Knott County's favorite sons, Democratic U.S. Rep. Carl D. Perkins, once said there was a prevalent, fatalistic attitude when he got to Congress in January 1949 that "some people are just bound to get killed" mining coal.
The attitude was rooted in tens of thousands of deaths.
It was not unusual for more than 2,500 miners to be killed annually across the United States in the first three decades of the 1900s, among them hundreds of men who went underground as coal production shot up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky after 1910.
Frank Fugate, a Knott County native who worked in underground coal mines from 1918 to 1952, told an oral-history interviewer in 1975 that coal companies and miners once knew little about preventing deaths.
"Nobody seemed to understand much about safety," said Fugate, who was 83 at the time he was interviewed. "They was having a lot of casualties."
Harry Caudill Fugate, whose interview is archived at Alice Lloyd College, said there was even a time when miners thought the coal dust they breathed included beneficial minerals.
In reality, breathing coal dust can cause black lung, a disease that impairs breathing and gets progressively worse, often resulting in a torturous, smothering death. Fugate had to stop and catch his breath several times, the interviewer noted.
Whitesburg lawyer Harry M. Caudill's father lost an arm in an accident at a coal tipple, so Caudill knew well the dangers of mining when he wrote his wrathful indictment of coal's history in Eastern Kentucky, the book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.
A "shockingly high" number of accidents in the early years of the industry killed and maimed miners in roof falls, explosions, machinery accidents and electrocutions, Caudill wrote in the 1963 book.
It was difficult to know the number of deaths and injuries, Caudill wrote, "but thousands of widows and orphans were left in the camps, and multitudes of ruined, broken miners were cast out to loaf before their dreary hearths and on the porches of the commissaries."
There had been a federal Bureau of Mines since 1910, but its role was limited to research and investigating accidents. It wasn't until 1941 that Congress gave federal inspectors the right to go into mines, and those inspectors had no mandatory health and safety standards to enforce until 1952.
In November 1968, an explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, W.Va., killed 78 people, and the images of smoke billowing out of the mine shocked the country.
The next year, Perkins helped push the toughest mining law in U.S. history through Congress. It increased inspections of underground mines, mandated fines for safety violations, added criminal penalties for willful violations, set a limit on miners' exposure to coal dust, and created compensation for miners suffering from black lung.
Congress changed the mine act again in 1977, after two blasts in March 1976 killed a total of 26 men, including three federal inspectors, at the Scotia Coal Co. mine in Letcher County. The new requirements included underground mine rescue teams and training for miners.
The next year, coal-mining deaths nationwide hit their lowest level of the century, at 106. Safety advocates thought the laws were paying off.
Deaths went back up in 1979, however, and by the winter of 1981-82, a string of mine disasters would make clear that many coal companies and miners were breaking the law, and — as Perkins and others would argue — that regulators weren't doing enough to make them operate safely.
'We can't go on like this'
The Adkins Coal Co. No. 11 mine, also known as the No. 18, was a small operation in a narrow hollow called Potato Branch, near the community of Topmost in eastern Knott County.
The mine, where an employee had been killed in a blasting accident in October 1980, was one of several operated by Orville Adkins and his family. It employed 23 people, split between two shifts, in December 1981.
Inspectors had cited a number of safety violations at the Potato Branch mine earlier in 1981. In January and July, for instance, federal inspectors found that employees were not using enough rock dust in the mine to quell the risk of an explosion. Coal dust, churned up by machinery or blasting in underground mines, is explosive. Miners spread rock dust — pulverized stone — to cut the combustibility of the coal dust.
A Mine Safety and Health Administration employee who inspected the mine in October 1981, however, later said he saw nothing that made him think it was dangerous. "It wasn't a bad mine at that time," said the inspector, Clarence Ritchie.
Some employees were telling their families a different story.
Dillard Ashley, who had more than 10 years' experience underground, told his wife, Annis, that he was worried about the lack of rock dust.
"He'd talk about … if they didn't get enough to work with, a bunch was going to get killed," she said in a recent interview. "He told me, 'We can't go on like this.'"
James Gibson's wife, Beulah, said there was so much coal dust in the mine that she had to wash his work clothes three times to clean them.
The miners couldn't complain about conditions for fear of being fired, said Joyce Blackburn, whose brother David Slone worked at the mine.
"David told us that at Adkins, the miners either did the job the way the company told them to do it or else they would lose their job," Blackburn said in 1982.
Gibson's wife said he was looking for another job but couldn't afford to leave the mine because she was eight months pregnant and they needed insurance.
Gibson knew the dangers of mining. His grandfather, who raised him, had been paralyzed in a mine accident, and at age 24, Gibson had already talked to a funeral director about details of his burial, including a white hearse to take him to the cemetery, Hayden said.
"It was on his mind," she said. "He was afraid where he was at."
'Scared to death'
There were 10 employees at the mine when the second shift started at 2 p.m. on Dec. 7, 1981.
Nine toiled underground, often on their knees because the coal seam in the mine was only about 31 inches high, and one worked at the repair shop outside.
The mine used a method called "shooting from the solid" to blast coal loose. Employees drilled a series of holes into a wall of coal, then tamped in a nitroglycerin-based explosive and detonated the charges.
The blasting caps in each hole had different delay periods, so the charges went off in sequence across the working face — something like slicing off pieces of bread from a loaf. Miners used a machine called a scoop to gather the loose coal and dump it on a conveyor system.
Some states had banned shooting from the solid because of concerns that it was dangerous, but it was common at hundreds of small mines in Eastern Kentucky at the time.
Roy Conley, then 21, was a scoop operator. He had hauled two loads of coal when a piece on the machine broke. Ordinarily, he would have called the repair shop, and the man there would have brought another scoop underground for him, but that day, two other scoops were broken, Conley said. So he drove his scoop out of the mine to be fixed.
He'd been outside no more than five minutes when he heard a noise and sensed a pressure, then saw mud, water and rocks twice as big as basketballs shooting from the mouth of the mine.
Nearly half a mile away underground, the blasting powder in one hole had failed to detonate. That created extra pressure on the next charge, and flame shot out from that hole into the mine, like a backfire. The flame ignited fine particles of coal dust and the explosion propagated, sucking in more coal dust to feed on as it tore through the mine.
It would have been like a tornado on fire, said Ray Slone, a longtime miner and the brother of David Slone, one of the men at the Potato Branch mine.
Debris from the explosion, which happened at 2:50 p.m., smashed glass in vehicles outside the mine. Conley said the shock wave lifted him off the ground.
Conley was dazed. He remembers staring briefly at his hand, which he had raised toward the mouth of the mine, and thinking that if his hand was real, if he could see it, then the blast was real as well.
He tried to call Dillard Ashley, whose work station was close to a phone in the mine, but he got no answer.
"I was scared to death," he said.
'We had hope'
In the hours after the blast, a scene unfolded that was sadly familiar in the Appalachian coalfields.
Rescue teams, ambulance crews, miners and residents rushed to the mine. Families of the men missing underground gathered at the nearby Beaver Creek Elementary School, which was decorated with a brightly lit Christmas tree, as rescuers crept into the mine to search for the eight miners.
The families waited, hope fighting with fear as the hours dragged on. An Old Regular Baptist preacher prayed with the families, said Judy Perry Poe, whose older brothers, Clarence and Roy Perry, were among those missing. "We knew it was bad, but we had hope," she said. "I was thinking the minute they get 'em out, I'm going to give 'em the biggest hug."
Authorities had Roy Conley stay at the mine in case they needed information, but they finally allowed him to go find his family at the school. As Conley approached, his brother, excited, called out, "There comes Roy!"
Roy Perry's twin sister, Dale, ran toward Conley, then collapsed and wept when she saw it wasn't her Roy.
"She just wanted it so bad to be her brother," said Conley, who choked back tears at the memory. (He had not spoken in detail of the blast and its aftermath with the media until contacted by the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this year.)
Underground, at 8:39 p.m., a rescue team found a body: David Slone, 25, a fellow scoop operator with a smile so bright, Conley said, that you could spot him coming in the mine even before the light hit him. Rescuers soon found four more bodies, but it would take hours to recover all eight.
Willard Stanley, the state mines commissioner, trudged into the school late in the evening to announce to the anxious families that several bodies had been found.
"Their reaction was just panic, screaming and crying, grabbing each other, holding on to each other," said the Rev. Charles Wilcox, a hospital chaplain who was there to help families.
In addition to David Slone, those who died were Dillard Ashley, 40; James Gibson, 24; Tommy Centers, 31; the easy-going foreman, Bob Slone, 39; Clarence Perry, 28; his brother Roy, 22; and Keith Crager, 25. All eight died from inhaling deadly carbon monoxide, according to a federal report.
Crews took the bodies to a rescue-squad building nearby and asked relatives to identify them. Bob Slone's daughter Josephine, then 17, said she did the grim job because her mother was pregnant with the couple's 11th child, three of whom had died.
When an ambulance worker unzipped the body bag, her father's arm fell out. She recognized his wristwatch, then saw her father's blackened face and singed hair.
Killed for a few bucks
The day after the blast in Knott County, 13 miners were killed in a methane explosion at an underground mine in Tennessee. Six weeks later, seven miners were killed in a massive coal-dust explosion at the RFH Coal Co. No. 1 mine in Floyd County, which adjoins Knott County.
Safety violations caused all three blasts, investigators found.
At the Knott County mine, workers had put far more explosive into the holes than permitted, and they hadn't packed clay dummies or other "stemming" materials into the blast holes to keep flame from shooting out into the mine, where it could ignite coal dust, federal regulators concluded.
To compound the problems, there was an improper accumulation of coal dust in the mine; sufficient rock dust hadn't been used to render the explosive dust inert; and there wasn't adequate ventilation to clear coal dust, according to a report from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The clay dummies designed to keep flame from shooting out of the blast holes cost a few cents apiece, said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who represented several widows of men killed in the blast.
"These guys literally were all killed because they didn't want to pay a few bucks," Oppegard said of the mine's owners.
Orville Adkins, the mine owner, has since died. A woman who answered the telephone at the home of his son, Adam, said the family did not want to comment.
Ray Slone, the brother of victim David Slone, said the practices at the Adkins mine were not unusual at the time.
"All of us done the same thing. We just didn't get caught," he said.
Perkins, the congressman whose modest Knott County home was a few miles from Topmost, chaired the House Committee on Education and Labor at the time of the disaster.
The unabashed New Deal Democrat had known Clarence and Roy Perry, their sister said. He wanted answers about why so many miners were dying in his district.
In February, a subcommittee of Perkins' committee opened a hearing on the explosions in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was a time of cutbacks at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and Perkins said he thought MSHA hadn't done enough to deter dangerous practices in the mines.
"I personally feel a contributing factor in these accidents was the inadequacy of the inspections," he said.
Sam Church, the burly president of the United Mine Workers of America union, testified that MSHA had conducted 5,117 fewer inspections in 1981 than the year before, even though the number of licensed mines had increased by 426. The number of MSHA inspectors had declined from 1,389 in 1979 to about 800, then-U.S. Rep. Paul Simon, D-Ill., told the committee.
MSHA chief Ford B. Ford did not acknowledge any link between the reduced number of federal inspections and the increase in mine deaths, and he said President Ronald Reagan's administration was committed to miner safety.
Critics, however, said MSHA was backpedaling on tough enforcement to benefit the coal industry. "Mr. Ford was chosen by the Reagan Administration to de-emphasize the federal government's commitment to coal mine safety and to ensure that safety regulations do not hinder coal production, and Mr. Ford is thoroughly and enthusiastically doing the job he was assigned to do," families of the dead miners said in a statement issued in August 1982, the day they picketed a coal-industry meeting in Lexington that Ford attended.
As in the wake of other disasters, regulators became more vigilant after the Topmost blast and lawmakers toughened rules, but the philosophy on how best to achieve mine safety can change with the political winds.
Under Republican President George W. Bush, MSHA used an approach called "compliance assistance" aimed at helping coal companies follow the law, an echo of the cooperative stance the agency had taken two decades earlier under Reagan.
Many in the coal industry favored the move, but critics said it was a poor alternative to aggressively cracking down on violations. MSHA records list no coal-mine disasters — defined as events involving five or more deaths — in the eight years before Bush took office, but four on his watch.
Between 2001 and 2005, the Bush administration cut back on the number of mine inspectors, dropped more than a dozen proposed safety rules and reduced the size of fines for safety violations, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in a January 2006 report.
After explosions at underground coal mines in West Virginia and Harlan County killed a total of 17 miners in the first half of 2006, some mine-safety advocates argued that the administration's approach to enforcement had borne bitter fruit.
"It wasn't a coincidence that there were so many disasters" under Bush, said Oppegard, who worked at MSHA in the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Congress and MSHA changed mine-safety law and rules again in 2006, mandating a greater supply of emergency air supplies for miners; emergency shelters in mines; high-tech communications and tracking devices to help find miners; and stronger materials to block off unused portions of mines.
But in the worst mine disaster in 40 years — a coal-dust blast that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April 2010 — MSHA found that the operator, Massey Energy, had brazenly covered up violations to thwart the law.
Joseph A. Main, a former union safety director whom President Barack Obama appointed to head MSHA in 2009, started a program of special inspections after the Upper Big Branch blast to target mines with poor safety records and other problems.
Federal inspectors have since written more than 11,000 citations and orders during those "impact" inspections. Between September 2010 and September 2012, the number of serious violations that inspectors found during the special inspections went down 21 percent, showing that the program was working, Main said.
Under Main, MSHA also has changed rules in order to move more quickly against mines with a history of safety problems; raised rock-dusting standards; required companies to look for and fix specific safety concerns; and filed more claims on behalf of miners who thought they were punished for making safety complaints.
Dennis O'Dell, safety and health administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, said the industry's reaction has been a "mixed bag." There are some things that reputable coal operators don't like, although they comply with the rules, but there are operators who hate Main and the administration, O'Dell said.
(The UMW helped drive safety improvements in Eastern Kentucky and the region after it prevailed in bloody organizing fights of the early 1900s, but it has been sapped by job losses, the rise of small non-union mines, changes in organizing rules and other factors. It now has only about 225 non-retiree members in Eastern Kentucky — none of them at a coal mine.)
Scott Howard, a Letcher County miner who has gained a reputation as a fearless safety advocate in his 34 years underground, said many miners would agree with their employers' argument that MSHA has cracked down too hard. The companies have convinced miners that over-regulation will knock them out of a job — a fear that ratchets up during tough economic times, Howard said.
Still, he supports MSHA's efforts, which he said have had an impact.
"I do know that these companies are more afraid of getting violations," Howard said. "I do see that Joe Main is making a difference."
This spring, on the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch blast, Miller said it was "shameful" that Congress hasn't adopted significant new mine-safety rules in the wake of the disaster.
Miller and other Democrats have gotten little traction with a bill that includes a range of tougher provisions, including stronger criminal penalties, higher civil penalties, authority for MSHA to close mines over unpaid safety fines, and real-time monitoring of the explosive level of dust in a mine.
The National Mining Association says MSHA already has the authority it needs to protect miners, and it opposes additional legislation, said Bruce Watzman, the association's senior vice president for regulatory affairs.
Watzman said most progressive coal companies see MSHA's regulations as a starting place for their safety efforts, not the end.
Initiatives by coal companies to take a fresh look at health and safety management since disasters in 2006 and 2010 have been a key part of declining fatality and injury rates, Watzman said. For example, the association released a new protocol last year outlining a systematic approach to health and safety management in mines.
"We want to drive improvement across the industry," Watzman said.
In June, Alpha Natural Resources opened a $23 million training center in West Virginia to help miners survive disasters. It features a simulation coal mine, complete with fires, floods and roof falls. The company, which bought Upper Big Branch mine owner Massey Energy, was required to build the academy as part of a $210 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over the mine disaster.
Main said in a recent interview that MSHA needs more tools to protect miners. But the initiatives and rule changes that the agency already has undertaken, along with attention to safety by many in the coal industry, are getting results, he said.
The coal industry recorded one of its safest years in history in 2012, with a record-low rate of 3.15 company-reported injuries per 200,000 hours worked and the second-lowest number of fatalities: 19.
"The distance that we have now to go to 0 is far, far less" than in the late 1970s, Main said of mine deaths.
The Topmost mine disaster, like all disasters, left a pall of pain, upended lives and what-ifs.
One miner had remarried just three weeks before he died. Another had planned to marry at Christmas. The brother of another essentially drank himself to death after the blast.
The widows of James Gibson and Bob Slone had babies days after their fathers were killed.
Gibson had been excited about becoming a father. He sometimes rocked his wife on his lap, saying he was rocking the baby, she said.
"It's just so sad that he never got to see her," said Beulah Gibson Hayden, who remarried in 1987.
Not long before he died, she and Gibson had been to Magic Mart in Hazard to buy Christmas gifts for each other. She couldn't open the gifts he had given her, keeping them wrapped as she remarried, had two more children and moved away from Knott County.
After 20 years, she finally opened the presents: a robe and some handmade dish towels.
Missi Ashley Moore, whose father, Dillard Ashley, died in the blast, said she and her mother, Annis Ashley Brown, never slept another night in the mobile home where the three had lived. They stayed with relatives until they could get another house.
"We were lost. We didn't know what to do without Daddy," she said.
Moore said she missed having her father there to see her in beauty pageants and the marching band, to give her away at her wedding.
Dillard Ashley, a churchgoing man with a keen curiosity about the world, had given her a typewriter for Christmas, and she opened the gift three weeks after his death. There was a note with it: "Go get 'em, girl."
The families of the dead miners were awarded at least $5.15 million through civil lawsuits, said their attorney, Joseph "Chip" Yablonski, but money doesn't erase pain.
Judy Perry Poe, whose two brothers were killed that day, said her children have watched her cry her way through every Christmas.
"I have never been as happy or cheerful as I should have been for my children," she said. "I feel like my kids, who weren't even born when Roy and Clarence died, have also suffered because of their deaths."
Roy Conley, who missed death by minutes, had flashbacks and a deep sense of guilt after the blast.
Roy Conley visited the Slone Family Cemetery near the site of the former mine in Topmost.
He worked at other underground mines for a total of seven more years, but he was scared every day. He insisted that other miners apply adequate rock dust, and he called inspectors to report safety issues. He started drinking in the evening so he could sleep, and on the weekends so he could go back to work Monday.
Conley was later injured in a mine and went on permanent disability. He eventually quit drinking, but he said he hasn't slept soundly since the blast.
More than 31 years later, he still cries when he talks about his former co-workers.
"Just think how many lives was destroyed that day."
Bill Estep and John Cheves
Alaska Dispatch Publishing