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2 killed, 8 injured in mine explosion

Officials unsure what caused blast in ‘gassy’ coal mine near Price

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PRICE — Two men were killed and at least eight others injured in an explosion Tuesday morning at the Willow Creek Mine Co. 13 miles north of Price.

The names of the men killed were not released Tuesday morning.

Marjean Hansen, manager of the Carbon County Sheriff's dispatch center, said crews thought they had extinguished the fire in the mine but were notified about 6 a.m. Tuesday that it had flared back up.

By press time Tuesday morning, Hansen said the fire was still burning and a Utah Highway Patrol spokesman said a UHP hazardous materials unit was on the scene to assist firefighters.

Ulrich Wegmann, a spokesman for Essen, Germany—based RAG Coal International, the mine's owner, said the company did not have any comment because it still was gathering information.

The mine employs about 325 people and can produce about 5 million tons of coal a year, Wegmann said.

The eight injured were in stable condition Tuesday morning, being treated for burns, broken bones and smoke inhalation, said Bonnie Cook, a spokeswoman with Castleview Hospital.

"We do not expect anymore fatalities," she said.

Two of the eight people were flown to the University Hospital in Salt Lake City, four were admitted to Castleview and two others were treated and released from Castleview. Several other people were treated at the mine but did not require further medical attention, Cook said.

The men flown to University Hospital have been identified as 21-year-old Tyson Hales and 27-year-old Kyle Medley, both from Helper.

"Tyson is in critical condition with trauma to the head, and burns," said hospital spokesman Chris Nelson. "Kyle is in serious condition with numerous fractures and burns to his hands and face."

Dispatchers were alerted to the accident shortly after midnight. Carbon County Civil Defense Director Dennis Dooley said the fire ignited on the longwall face.

"Giant shears move back and forth to mine coal," Dooley said. "Somewhere where it cuts is where the fire started."

A crew from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is investigating what caused the fire. Agency spokesman Rodney Brown said a report could be expected in several days.

"Could be methane, hydrocarbons, could be a lot of things," Dooley said. "But that's total speculation. All we know is something ignited. We don't know if it means ignited (and then) caught fire or ignited-explosion. We don't know."

A Carbon County Sheriff's spokesman did not know how deep in the mine the fire occurred.

Dooley said everyone is out of the mine. A rescue team recovered the bodies of the two men killed.

Part of U.S. 191 remained closed Tuesday morning as a result of the fire.

This is not the first problem at the mine. In November 1998 methane gas ignited, causing a blaze that closed the mine for a year. Forty-six miners escaped unharmed during that fire, and at the time safety officials credited a safety system that used pagers to alert miners of the danger.

Tom Bingham, president of the Utah Mining Association, said air-monitoring in coal mines has become so precise that fires are often detected even before flames can erupt. For a fire to catch so many people unaware, he said, it must have been very sudden.

"That particular mine is what they would refer to as a 'gassy' mine," Bingham said. "There is a lot of methane in that particular area, and that would probably have something to do with it."

Price, a community of about 9,000 people, is 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. According to federal figures, there are about 86,000 U.S. coal miners working primarily in Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Mining accidents have actually been reduced in the past five years as the number of coal mines and miners has declined, according to the National Mining Association. The groups figures show there were 5,200 mine injuries last year, 20 of them fatal, compared to 8,764 injuries and 45 fatalities in 1994.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com