Miners follow tragedy closely

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When Tom Miller first heard the news that 13 coal miners in West Virginia were trapped underground after an explosion, he immediately assumed the worst.

"I figured they were probably all dead," said Miller, who has worked at the Deserado Mine near Dinosaur for 25 years.

Early Wednesday morning, Miller's worst fears were realized.

Officials from International Coal Group, the company that owns the Sago Mine near Tallmansville, W. Va., announced early Wednesday that 12 of the 13 men trapped underground after an explosion at the mine Monday had died.

"I hope I never go through that," said Miller, 53.

Late Tuesday night, there were reports that 12 of the 13 miners had survived the accident, causing short-lived celebrations among the miners' families.

Miller said the tragedy in West Virginia doesn't make him afraid to return to work underground at Deserado. But it is something he'll continue to think about, he said.

"It makes you appreciate life a little more," Miller said. "It should do that for everyone."

In Northwest Colorado, where four active coal mines employ more than 1,000 people, residents and mining officials followed the story in West Virginia closely.

"It hits pretty close to home," said Forrest Luke, environmental manager at Trapper Mine, south of Craig.

Safety is always a major concern at Trapper, Luke said. But tragedies, such as the one in West Virginia, bring mine safety to the forefront.

"We kind of live and breathe safety out here," Luke said.

The Trapper Mine is above ground, so the risk of miners being trapped by an explosion isn't as great as it is at underground work sites, Luke said.

The primary safety concern at Trapper involves moving heavy equipment on the mine's surface, he said.

At Twentymile Coal Co. in Routt County -- which, like Deserado and the Sago Mine, is underground -- miners followed news of the tragedy in West Virginia closely, said operations manager D.L. Lobb.

Lobb said he doesn't expect the tragedy to result in more inspections or stepped-up safety measures at Twentymile because safety is already a primary concern at the mine.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, inspects mines every three months, looking for safety violations, Lobb said.

The administration also conducts random spot searches, he said.

According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, there hasn't been a death at a Colorado coal mine since 2000, when Thomas Emmons, age 37, was killed in an accident at the Sanborn Creek Mine in Gunnison County.

Miners at Colowyo Coal Mine in southern Moffat County paid close attention to the news in West Virginia, said Keith Haley, mine manager.

"We're tuned in and feeling horrible about it," he said.

Haley said he hopes Colowyo can learn a lesson from the West Virginia tragedy about how to communicate during a disaster.

The owners of the Sago Mine knew the reports that 12 miners had survived were wrong shortly after the news spread. But they waited more than two hours before they corrected the reports.

Colowyo employees will study how International Coal Group handled the events and try not to repeat their mistakes, Haley said.

Some longtime area residents have endured mine tragedies.

One of the worst mining accidents in Northwest Colorado occurred in 1942, when 34 miners were killed in an explosion at the Wadge Mine in Routt County.

Brandon Johansson can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or bjohansson@craigdailypress.com.

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