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Memory of mine escape in 1988 still vivid

'You don't prepare for water, only fire'

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Gary Kuklish was working 600 feet down, more than three miles in, when fire broke out on the "mother belt" that hauled coal out of Marianna Mine No. 38 on March 7, 1988.

"We got a telephone call through our foreman," said Kuklish, 46, of LaBelle, Fayette County. "He came immediately and notified us. There were 10 of us in my section."

 
 
One earlier accident at Quecreek Mine

Since Black Wolf Coal Company, Inc. first opened the Quecreek Mine in 2000, there has been one accident. It occurred on Oct. 17, 2001, when a 35-foot-long by 25-foot-wide section of roof collapsed. No one was injured.

The mine has received 26 citations and ordered to pay $859 in penalties, of which $836 has been paid, according to U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration records. Of those 26 citations, 16 occurred in 2001 and 10 through June 3, 2002.

Of the 2001 citations, four were considered "significant and substantial" by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Three of those occurred below ground. The violations involved combustible materials, mining methods, protection from rock falls and underground electrical installations.

Of the 10 citations issued so far this year, five were considered "significant and substantial." Four of them occurred above ground. The violations involved combustible materials, identification of inexperienced miners and insufficient mechanical equipment guards.

   
 

The group boarded a "mantrip," a motorized trolley that takes miners to work areas. Then they hit the smoke.

The fire was filling the passages of the mine with blinding smoke, threatening 27 workers who were deep inside. Kuklish's group realized fire blocked their way out.

"That made a believer out of you," said Kuklish.

The experience of being deep inside a mine when disaster hits sears the memory.

"Watching this [the Somerset mine rescue attempt] on television brings it back," said Kuklish, who didn't re-enter an underground mine for 13 years after making it out of Marianna alive. He was unemployed for a period, since BethEnergy Mines Inc., a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel Corp., never reopened Marianna after the fire. He then worked for surface mines until starting with Maple Creek Mine near Bentleyville last year.

Kuklish recalled the 1988 fire he walked out of during an interview yesterday.

He said his group abandoned the mantrip and started to make their way on foot after hitting the heavy smoke.

The group started toward a designated escape route, donning their "self-contained self-rescuers," breathing units that all miners carry. Units are also stored in the mine and on transports. But they hit black smoke billowing up from a large duct and had to leave the escape route and enter an air intake passageway. Then a man in the group fell to the floor.

"This one guy, he did not turn on his self-contained self-rescuer," said Kuklish. "He had it on but he hadn't turned it on, so he breathed his own air in and out. That can kill you."

The man, Harry Cogar, went delirious, and lay spitting and gasping for breath. Kuklish stayed with him, while the rest of the group went on.

"I said this could be it for me," he said. "I just tried to talk to him and drag and move him anyway I could.

"Probably after five or 10 minutes time, my section foreman came back to help me." Another miner also helped, and a pit foreman came back to lead them all to safety.

It took Kuklish almost an hour to make it out of the mine.

Another group of 10 miners who had been caught even closer to the fire also made it out. Joe Ross of Luzerne Township, a member of that group, told The Pittsburgh Press at the time: "You could feel the heat, but you couldn't see anything. It was like burning rubber tires, then jumping in with them."

Larry Cuddy also knows what it's like to face fire in a mine. Cuddy, the safety supervisor for Consol Energy's Bailey Mine in Greene County, has fought fires in mines.

Firefighters only enter when there is plenty of logistical support on the scene and officials are confident they can get out if they need to, Cuddy said.

"You don't just go in there blindly and go wild. They have a plan in place. Once we get to the fire scene, we try to keep fresh air to our back. I've never had a situation where I couldn't get out."

Nevertheless, "it's scary. We all have families, too."

Kuklish said that the Quecreek accident was particularly jarring because miners always think about fire, not water.

"I do remember back in the Marianna days we'd drill 2-inch holes, 20 feet at a time, with an auger steel air gun" when he was working in areas where there was a possibility of hitting water-filled shafts. "But really, you don't prepare for water, only fire."

"Seeing it all, it makes you think," he said.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 11, 2002) Former miner Harry Cogar says he walked, unassisted, out the Marianna Mine No. 38 after a fire in the mine March 7, 1988. Cogar says a story July 26 about the fire mischaracterized his escape from the mine.

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