BROOKWOOD, Ala. — THE STORY SO FAR
Half a mile underground, Tony Key trod down a tunnel, flecks of coal dust blowing in his face. He was looking for a telephone to alert mine inspectors that a house-size section of roof had just caved in. Key knew that this was a particularly gassy mine and that a battery charger -- its electric arc a potential ignition source -- might still be running on the other side of the cave-in. A tremor of worry passed through him.
BROOKWOOD, Ala. -- Tony Key heard the explosion before he felt it. He half-turned to look but found himself hurtling through the air.
He bounced several times on his side before coming to rest 50 feet away, half-buried in a pile of dirt and coal. Disoriented and blinded by the swirl of coal dust, his headlamp blown from his head, he thought at first that he might be dead.
As he clawed his way out of the rubble, he reached for the self-rescue apparatus in a tube on his belt. In the darkness, he fumbled with the mouthpiece and activated the airbag designed to convert carbon monoxide into breathable oxygen.
Key was terrified. He was usually mellow and unexcitable, speaking only in slow, measured tones, but he'd never been through anything like this.
It was 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001. Less than a minute had passed since the roof fall in Four Section of the No. 5 mine, but it had been time enough for a pocket of gas to escape, reach the electric arc of the battery charger and ignite.
A few yards from Key, Michael McIe staggered to his feet with the vague feeling that he was on fire. He remembered the mantra his young daughter recited from school: Stop, drop and roll. That's what he did, rolling about in the dark and patting himself frantically.
McIe heard moaning. He hollered for his friend, Gaston Adams Jr., the third man who had been working on the roof with them. McIe dragged himself toward Adams' headlamp, the only one still working. He could barely make it out, the dust was so thick.
McIe found his friend on the ground, surrounded by chunks of concrete blasted from the nearby wall. "I can't move," Adams said.
For a moment, McIe thought about carrying Adams, who at 240 pounds outweighed his would-be rescuer by 70. But fearful that Adams might have a broken back, he discarded the idea. Adams gave him his light to go for help.
With Key clinging to his work belt, McIe headed down the tunnel in the direction of the section entrance, several hundred yards away, holding the light high so they could follow a cable running overhead.
A short way down the tunnel, they stumbled into Skip Palmer, nicknamed Brutus, who'd been ferrying materials to Four Section on a motorized rail cart. Palmer was just picking himself off the ground.
The three of them got in the cart and rode until they could ride no farther. Across the tracks, pipes from Four Section's ventilation system lay in a useless heap.
Closer to the source of the blast, the force of the explosion had shattered concrete walls, another part of the ventilation system that carried good air into the mine and bad air, laden with methane, out.
Any methane seeping into Four Section now had no way to get out.
Key skirted the wreckage of the ventilation pipes and made his way down the tunnel on foot, looking for a phone that he knew was somewhere just outside the section entrance. By now, three other miners working nearby had made their way up the passageway to investigate.
Key and two of the men climbed into a six-passenger "manbus" that was still running and made it to the phone. One of his companions told him that the phone wasn't working; he'd already tried it. But Key frantically punched its black emergency page button again and again. Finally, he got through to the mine's control room, which sits on the surface next to the mine's elevator shaft.
"There's been an explosion," Key said. "We need lots of help. Mine rescue, helicopters, ambulances, everything."
Thirty-two men were scattered throughout the vast Jim Walter Resources No. 5 mine that evening. As emergency telephones bleated out instructions, the men began moving through the vast complex of caverns and tunnels.
Had they scrambled to the surface, only Adams, too injured to make it out, would have perished. But that is not what they did. Like the New York City police and firefighters who, just days before, had rushed to the World Trade Center towers, the miners raced not from danger but toward it.
Miners know what underground fires and gas explosions can do; the annals of mining abound with tragic examples. In Monogah, W.Va., in 1907, 362 miners died in the worst mining accident in the nation's history; in Farmington, W.Va., in 1968, 78 perished; in Oven Fork, Ky., in 1976, 26 miners and inspectors were killed.
But miners have a creed: When trouble happens, you save your brothers. You also save your livelihood. You save the mine.