PRICE, Utah -- In communities where generations have clawed at the earth for coal, mining disasters are a hard fact of life.
On Tuesday, this blue-collar community was coping with the latest blow -- a fire in the Willow Creek Mine that killed two miners and injured eight others.
"Your heart bleeds," said Sandra Fossat, whose father-in-law died in a mine blast 37 years ago. "When you live in a mining community, this is what happens. ... We feel so bad and we're a very close-knit community."
Investigators suspect the fire Monday night started when the ceiling of part of the mine shaft was allowed to collapse -- a normal part of the mining operation, said Ron Spangler, a spokesman for mine owner RAG Coal International of Essen, Germany.
But the collapse apparently created sparks that started the fire and ignited the explosion, which may have been fueled by a pocket of methane gas, Spangler said. The gas is commonly found in coal seams.
The fire started in the area where coal was being mined, about 2,000 feet beneath the surface. Eighty-four workers were in the mine.
"I didn't hear anything. I only felt it," miner Wes Ellner, 21, told The Salt Lake Tribune. He suffered minor burns.
Miners Shane Stansfield, 29, and Cory Nielson, 28, were killed.
One worker remained in critical condition Wednesday with burns and a head injury, while another who suffered fractures and burns was released. Two miners were treated and released, and four were treated for burns, smoke inhalation and physical trauma.
Federal Mine Safety Health Administration investigators were on the scene Tuesday and a preliminary report was expected in several days.
It was the mine's second serious fire in the past two years. Methane ignited in November 1998 and closed the mine for a year. Forty-six miners escaped that fire unharmed, and safety officials credited a system that uses pagers to alert miners of the danger.
The mine, about 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, employs about 340 people and can produce 5 million tons of coal a year, RAG spokesman Ulrich Wegmann said.
There are about 86,000 coal miners in the United States.
Coal mining accidents have declined in the past five years as the numbers of mines and miners have decreased, according to the National Mining Association. There were 5,200 mine injuries last year, 20 of them fatal, compared to 8,764 injuries and 45 fatalities in 1994.
On the Net:
Mine Safety Health Administration: http://www.msha.gov
RAG Coal International: http://www.rag-coalinter.de
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