By Bill Jochems
Special to The Sopris Sun
It was forty years ago, but feels like yesterday. Thwap, thwap, thwap and echoes of helicopters woke Redstone at dawn. Then Tom Brokaw’s voice came through: “and this morning, in Redstone, Colorado…” National news, but a locally intense and tragic story. There was a massive explosion deep in Mid-Continent’s Dutch Creek Number One mine in Coal Basin, six miles west of Redstone. Twenty-one miners were still down there.
The gas blew, early in the swing shift, April 15, and frantic rescue efforts continued for two days. Some miners were able to call out. Rescue team members Tim Cole and Lee McBride went in within a couple of hours. They helped six injured miners out, but the devastation kept them 800 feet from the explosion’s epicenter. Fifteen men were still missing.
Heavy gloom came down on our town. We knew these men. Redstone, built by John Osgood as a mining and coking town, was still a mining town in 1981. True, Osgood’s widow sold off most of the original houses, but Mid-Continent owned the Redstone Inn and miners lived here, families in houses, and single men in motels and apartments. They patronized and socialized in the Inn and Townhouse (now Propaganda Pie). The end of every day shift brought a line of pick-up trucks to the General Store, buying six-packs for the drive home. At Mid-Continent’s zenith, several hundred miners produced up to a million tons of metallurgical coal per year. Two shifts of 30-ton trucks, one every four minutes, hauled coal to the unit train at Carbondale.
Access to the explosion site was difficult. The portal was 10,000 feet up in Coal Basin. And then the tunnel went 6,000 feet into the mountain, following the coal seam down the 10 degree dip, and ending an extraordinary 3,000 feet under Huntsman’s Ridge. That was the site of the explosion. Gas had to be cleared and safety insured, before rescuers reached the site on the second day and confirmed that all 15 men had been killed in the explosion.
How did this happen? The Coal Basin mines were known to be “gassy.” An explosion in 1965 killed nine men. Methane oozes from every face of newly cut coal and when it reaches 5% to 15%, a tiny spark will set it off. Great efforts were made to ventilate the mines and hold the methane down below 1%. Powerful eight-foot fans were at the portals, forcing gales into the mines. Heavy brattice curtains directed fresh air to the gassiest locations. When gas exceeded 1%, operations were shut down. But something went terribly wrong that day. Federal investigation followed, but questions remain. Why did gas build up? What was the ignition source?
Mid-Continent mined coal for another ten years, but as American steel production declined, so did the market for metallurgical coal. By the early 1990s the mines shut down. The names of the 15 men who died on April 15, 1981, are inscribed on the plaque at the base of Coal Road, along with the names of the 40 other men who died in Coal Basin, from 1901 to 1990. The plaque is inscribed: COAL MINING HAS ALWAYS BEEN DANGEROUS WORK.