HELPER, Utah - A fire and explosion deep in a Utah coal mine killed two miners and injured 12 others. Investigators suspect the cause was a mining technique involving the deliberate collapse of the mine roof.
Four miners escaped uninjured from the blaze at the Willow Creek Mine, about six miles north of Helper, Dennis Dooley, Carbon County emergency management director, said Tuesday.
The fire, which began at about 11:30 p.m. Monday, was quelled and rescuers were able to enter the mine, Dooley said.
Cory Nielson, 28, and Shane Stansfield, 29, died in the fire, according to mine owner RAG Coal International of Essen, Germany.
RAG Coal spokesman Ron Spangler said investigators suspect the fire started when the ceiling of part of the mine shaft was allowed to collapse - a normal part of mining operations.
But the roof collapse apparently created sparks that started a fire, Spangler said. That ignited a secondary explosion that may have been fueled by a pocket of methane gas, which is commonly found in coal seams.
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.''
Four miners were treated at the scene and eight others were taken to Castleview Hospital in Price. Spangler said two were treated and released and six were treated for burns, smoke inhalation and physical trauma. Two of those were taken to the University of Utah Health Sciences Center in Salt Lake City.
Spangler said it's not clear when Nielson and Stansfield died. Helper Police Chief George Zamantakis said they were dead when they were removed from the mine. He also said none of the men - either dead or alive - suffered burns worse than second-degree.
The mine's openings were sealed in an effort to smother the fire, Spangler said.
Federal Mine Safety Health Administration investigators were on the scene and a preliminary report was expected in several days, said Rodney Brown, an agency spokesman in Arlington, Va.
It was the mine's second serious fire in the past two years. Methane also ignited in November 1998 and closed the mine for a year. Forty-six miners escaped that fire unharmed and safety officials credited a system using pagers to alert miners of the danger.
The Willow Creek Mine employs about 340 people and can produce 5 million tons of coal a year, RAG spokesman Ulrich Wegmann said.
On the Net:
Mine Safety Health Administration: http://www.msha.gov
RAG Coal International: http://www.rag-coalinter.de