Accident cause still unknown

Investigation into August fatality

More than 10 months after a fatal explosion claimed the life of a Trapper Mine employee, officials still aren't sure what caused the accident. The Mining Safety and Health Administration accident report has not been completed.

"It's unusual for a fatality report to take as long as this has," Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) spokeswoman Cathy Snyder said.

On Aug. 12, Joseph Koonce, 42, was killed in an explosion at the mine. He died instantly after a primer on the mine's blast pattern detonated unexpectedly. Koonce had worked for Trapper Mine for 18 years. His was the first death reported in the mine's 22-year history.

After the accident, MSHA officials said it would take four to six weeks before the report was complete.

A draft of the report has been complete since December, but its release is pending the results of testing done on the explosives that caused the accident.

"Our primary concern will be to find out what caused the accident and what we can do to help prevent a similar occurrence," Tommy Hooker, assistant district manager for the District 9 officer of the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

According to Hooker, preliminary data showed that blasting caps used to ignite a booster detonated before they were supposed to. It is not known whether the explosion was caused by operator or mechanical error.

MSHA officials say they are still waiting on laboratory tests being done on the explosives.

"Not all fatalities involve technical complexities that have to be checked in the lab," Snyder said.

She said the final report should be released within two weeks.

MSHA investigated 34 coal mine fatalities in 1999. Of those, 24 accident reports have been completed, four of which occurred after the accident at Trapper Mine.

Mine officials, too, are anxious to see the report.

"I've never heard of one taking this long," General Manager Gordon Peters said. "There's nothing in place to slow down the investigation that I know of."

Precautions released by MSHA because of this accident include posting explosive manufacturer's safety precautions, additional instruction for all miners required to work with explosives and examination of all explosive materials for possible defects prior to usage.

Trapper Mine has made some minimal changes to its procedure because of the accident.

"The investigation didn't show anything we were doing incorrectly or illegally," Peters said. "Still, we looked at everything and said, 'How can we do this better? How can we do this safer?'"

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