CNN PAULA ZAHN NOW 8:00 PM EST, January 23, 2006C
CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This West Virginia miner is still trying to come to grips with the tragedy in the Aracoma Mine, the fire that he escaped, but that killed his friends, Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield.
He has asked us not to reveal his identity out of respect for them and their families. Shortly after 5:30 this last Thursday afternoon, his group of 12 miners learned that a conveyor belt had caught fire. They immediately began their escape. But it was more than two miles to the nearest mine exit.
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: We started just smelling -- smelling the fire a little bit. And then we started running into some light smoke. And, at that time, nobody had their apparatuses on. We was all just kind of covering our faces and covering our mouths with our jacket.
HUNTINGTON: Were you scared?
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: Definitely. I faced -- I faced death right now. I really did. I thought -- I didn't think I was coming home to see my family.
HUNTINGTON: But then the smoke turned black and choking, and they had to put on their emergency breathing gear.
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: We was trying to put the apparatus on. And the smoke was so bad that I was -- myself -- and I can vouch that others around me was gagging, gasping for air, suffocating, and throwing up. I was throwing up. And I know a couple -- couple of my buddies was throwing up as well.
HUNTINGTON: This miner dropped his goggles. And he said others did, too. The smoke was so thick, they couldn't even see their miner lights. Moving single file, with each man holding on to the man in front, they felt their way blindly along a coal shaft for nearly the length of a football field, searching for an escape door they believed would lead to fresh air.
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: As we worked our way, you know, to the door, the guy in the back, which was the boss, you know, he assumed that they was 11 miners in front of him. And the guy in the front assumed that 11 miners was behind him. As soon as we got through the door, we realized two was missing.
And we didn't know, couldn't figure out how they got separated from us. And we finally realized we couldn't not find them. So, all of the 10 that made it out got together and...
HUNTINGTON (on camera): At that point, did you know it was Don and Elvis?
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: We -- we knew who was missing, yes. We didn't know who was -- we knew exactly when we got through the door who was missing.
HUNTINGTON (voice-over): They yelled back through the door, as a couple of them made two trips back into the smoke to search for Bragg and Hatfield.
(on camera): What was your first feeling when you knew you were nine...
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: You...
HUNTINGTON: Or you knew you were 10, not 12?
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: You get a real sickening feeling to your stomach, just wondering where -- where could they have gone, you know, where they -- where could they be?
HUNTINGTON (voice-over): After 15 frightening minutes of trying to find the other two, the 10 had no choice, but to save themselves and pray.
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: You hear a lot of stories about, you know, what -- people say what I would have done and what this one would have done. And, in a situation like that, I can honestly say now there is not much you can do.
HUNTINGTON (on camera): Do you think this could have been prevented?
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: This was pure accident. I mean, this -- this -- the only way this could have been prevented is if you would have had five or six guys at that one area when the fire started.
HUNTINGTON (voice-over): But he is upset that there was not a mine rescue team on site familiar with the huge labyrinth of the Aracoma Mine.
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: Most of the guys on the mine rescue teams have never been under that hill right there specifically.
HUNTINGTON (on camera): Given what you have been through, will you go back into the mines?
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: Me personally, I -- I probably won't go back under the hill.
HUNTINGTON (voice-over): But while he was under that hill, he knew he would make every effort to get out.
(on camera): What gave you the determination to keep your head together to get out of there?
UNIDENTIFIED MINER: Probably -- probably my kids. I mean, that's all that -- I mean, I have got, you know, two young kids. And I knew, you know -- that's all that kept going through my head. You know, I have got to I have got to -- I have got to see them, you know, and...
HUNTINGTON: Chris Huntington, CNN, Melville, West Virginia.
And one more from CNN on the profitability of the coal industry.
CNN 1:00 PM EST, January 23, 2006
KYRA PHILLIPS: With the recent coal mine tragedies and talk of boosting safety, we wanted to look at just how profitable coal mining is. Here's the facts.
TONY HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The biggest U.S. coal producer, Peabody Energy, made a profit of $260 million in the first three quarters of 2005. That put the company on track to double its annual profits from the previous year.
The nation's second largest coal mining company, Arch Coal, also had higher properties, up about 25 percent, to $91 million in the first nine months of 2005.
Coal industry profits can't hold a candle to profits from other industries. Oil, for instance. Exxon Mobil made a record $25 billion profit in 2004. But coal profits and the stock prices of the major producers have risen sharply in the past couple of years.
The trend holds with International Coal Group. In March of last year, it bought the Sago Mine, where 12 miners died this month. ICG had a net income of $29 million for the first nine months of 2005, compared to a heavy loss the previous year.
Analysts expect coal profits to rise further as the cost of natural gas and oil increases. Analysts expect the demand for coal to double in the next 20 years.
More 2006 Mine Disaster Stories