By Brad Bowman
Charles Smith, of Salyersville, was operating a dozer, moving coal over a feeder at the processing plant in eastern Kentucky about 3:25 p.m. on March 5, when a void opened in the pile. It pulled his dozer backward, deep into the void.
“When it fell in, it turned me around,” Smith said in his post-accident interview. “When I got down in there, I tried to holler (over the CB radio) and tell them I was in the feeder. No response. The fall had torn the antennas off, I guess.”
The small window of daylight that Smith could see from deep in the stockpile quickly disappeared as the coal fell in around the dozer and trapped him in darkness.
But safety training done by the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Mine Safety specialists and the quick actions of employees at Spurlock Mining Co. processing plant in Prestonsburg helped save Smith’s life after he was buried under about 30 feet of coal.
“This is a perfect example of how applied mine safety training can make a difference for miners working within the commonwealth,” Tim Fugate, division director for Division of Mine Safety said. “It’s miners like Smith who knowledgeably apply these principles that allow a good outcome out of such dire circumstances.”
Smith’s coworkers had grown nervous after they hadn’t had contact with him for some time. They had called for him on the CB, but he didn’t respond. Smith had told them approximately the location of where he would be pushing the coal.
A fellow dozer operator went to Smith’s last location to check on him. After driving his own dozer near the pile, the operator could barely see the top blade line of the front of Smith’s dozer cresting the pile, and he realized his coworker was vertically submerged.
The call quickly went out for additional equipment to dig Smith out. They didn’t know if he was unconscious or injured, as no one could establish contact. His dozer included a “submarine” package — glass made to withstand heavy impact fortified the operator’s cab.
Before he lost daylight, before the coal pile entirely engulfed Smith, he used his pocketknife to pry open a case containing a breathing apparatus. Sitting in the driver’s seat with his dozer trapped vertically upright, Smith took in the remaining air left in his cab.
“The first objective is to escape.” That’s the first sentence in the instructions for the first of two self-rescuer breathing apparatuses Smith put on when it became hard to breathe. According to state mine safety specialists, Kentucky law requires one on each vehicle. Luckily, Smith’s dozer had two.
He and his coworkers had undergone mandatory safety training, taught by the Cabinet’s Division of Mine Safety, in January for just such a situation.
Mine workers train on how to open the apparatus, how to turn it on and secure it to their body, according to James Tackett, a state mine safety specialist and branch manager near the mine.
Smith waited for almost two hours, as rescuers frantically dug using two excavators that happened to be on site. When he started to see daylight in the top corner of his cab, Smith put on the second apparatus.
He was halfway through his second supply of oxygen when the excavators had cleared enough coal and were finally able to grab the dozer’s front blade, slowly pulling him to safety. Nathan Moore, Rodney Mosley and Tackett, state mine safety specialists who had gone to the scene, directed the rescue.
The 34-year mine veteran sustained no injuries and returned to work the next day.
The mission of the Division of Mine Safety is to protect the health and safety of the miner through inspections, training, education and the analyst process. Read more about the Division of Mine Safety here.