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Statement by Dave Lauriski
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
October 15, 2001

Thank you all for being here today.

I'd like to spend the next few minutes updating you on the ongoing recovery efforts at Jim Walter #5 mine. I understand that a number of you have been following this process very closely over the last three weeks.

As you know, Brookwood is a small community. The accident at #5 has profoundly affected a great many people. The candlelight ceremony that took place at Brookwood High School was an extremely moving memorial service, and underscored what a bond this community has with the miners who died. Our thoughts and concern continue to be with the families of these miners.

Two weeks ago, I announced the start of the investigation into the September 23rd accident. I explained that I had appointed a team of nine mine health & safety professionals from MSHA offices in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia to determine the cause of the explosion. The individual heading up that team is Mr. Ray McKinney.

Our immediate goal is to recover the bodies of the 12 men who remain inside the mine. For those of you who've been tracking our efforts, you know what a complex process this has been.

For nearly three weeks, mine rescue teams, MSHA 's Mine Emergency Operations group, the Birmingham district office, our accident investigation team, Jim Walter Industries, the State of Alabama, and the UMWA have worked relentlessly to meet that initial goal. I can't say enough about these people. Since the accident occurred, they have maintained an around the clock presence.

Millions of gallons of water was pumped in the mine to exclude oxygen from the affected areas. Boreholes were drilled to conduct gas testing. Ventilation controls were adjusted and re-adjusted. Water that accumulated in other areas of the mine was pumped out.

At every step of the way, the safety of these teams has been our primary consideration. Several times during the course of the recovery process we've had to pull the teams out because of high levels of methane gas.

Over the weekend, the teams successfully completed sealing off the two mined out longwall panels of the mine.

With that done, the next step was for the accident investigation team to enter the mine to record damage that occurred during the explosion. This too, was done over the weekend. Recording of these conditions has to be completed before the permanent repairs can take place.

Each one of these steps is bringing us closer to recovering the miners' bodies and closer to finding the cause of this tragic accident.

Once again, we appreciate everyone's patience throughout this process. At the very least, the families of these miners deserve answers, and by conducting a completely thorough investigation, we hope to provide them with those answers and to prevent this type of accident from ever happening again.

And now, I'd like to talk a bit about the team that is conducting the investigation.

Since I announced the team's formation, the nine members have been steadily gathering background information that will serve as a log for the investigation.

They've met with company, state and union officials to explain the investigative process and establish their contact persons. They've made themselves readily available to the family members, offering explanations about how they're going to proceed and letting the families know they'll be there to address questions or concerns that may come up.

The person who is leading this investigation is someone in whom I have a great deal of faith and confidence. Ray McKinney has been with MSHA since 1976, and a district manager in Norton, Virginia since 1994. Last year, he was the team leader in the accident investigation of an explosion at the Willow Creek Mine in Utah. In 1993, Ray headed recovery operations following a fatal mine explosion at the AA&W Coal Company in Kentucky.

In order to assist Ray and his team and to provide all the facts available, I would strongly encourage miners at Jim Walter #5 Mine-- those who have relevant information that may shed light on the cause of the accident -- to contact Ray through MSHA's district office here in Birmingham.

Thank you, and we would be happy to answer a few questions.