As Wade Mullins settled into the rhythm of working inside McClure No. 1 Mine, it seemed like just another evening shift.
But that day, June 21, 1983, would end up being one he and many others in the community will never forget. During that shift, Virginia's worst coal mining tragedy in 25 years would happen.
Mullins was running a roof bolter when he suddenly felt a strange sensation of pressure in his ears. The extremely loud roof bolting machine went silent, although he could see it was still running.
It would be nearly an hour later, once Mullins and the other miners working in his section, reached the outside, that he knew the mine had exploded.
Although it has been 30 years since that sad night, Mullins still vividly recalls the details of it. He also still thinks of and dearly misses the seven co-workers lost to the explosion that night.
“I think about it a lot during this time of year,” he said in a Monday interview. “Each and every one of them there was just as close as family. Everyone was like family,” he recalled.
When Mullins took a job in Clinchfield’s McClure No. 1 Mine a year before the explosion, he knew its reputation for being gaseous. His dad, Billy Gene Mullins, had worked day shift there since the mine opened.
But Mullins was 25 and making plans to marry his girlfriend, Angie Rasnick. Like other miners, he ignored the inherent danger of any coal mining job and accepted the position. Mining was in his blood, after all. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and was willing to accept the risks that went along with the job.
When Mullins felt a wave of pressure and lost his hearing for a few seconds that night, he wondered if it was only his imagination.
He looked at his bolting partner, who was trying to “pop” his ears. Mullins hit the panic bar on the bolter to stop the machine. His partner had felt the explosion too, although neither man knew what had happened. The section they were working in still had power, so they didn’t think anything very bad had happened. They returned to bolting.
Within less than a minute, they felt another sensation of pressure and loss of hearing again. Another man working on their crew said he had felt it too, but none of them knew what it was. “Sometimes when there’s a roof fall and it is close, you will hear it or feel pressure from it,” Mullins explained.
Then their section lost power. So Mullins and his bolting partner walked toward the mouth of the section to investigate. It was then that they heard their section boss yelling for them to leave the mine because it was on fire.
“We grabbed our rescuers (a breathing apparatus to assist miners during an emergency) and went to the mantrip that miners ride in and out of the mines,” recalled Mullins.
Their section boss was on the telephone talking with others outside the mine. He was told the men should walk as far as they could to get into fresh air. At that point, those working outside the mine didn’t know what had happened either.
A second call from the outside came with new instructions. The miners were to take the mantrip as far as they could, monitoring the level of methane gas as they went. At that point, everyone still thought a section of the mine was on fire.
Mullins said the men did as they were told. When they reached the point where their section connected to the main tunnel, they ran into smoke and dust coming from 2 Left section. “A mantrip was turned crossways on the rail,” Mullins said. “It had come down a steep hill where you go into 2 Left.”
The men walked from there, a distance of 1,000 feet or more, to an elevator that would take them to the surface. Although they weren’t certain, the smoke and dust coming from 2 Left indicated it was the section on fire.
The miners were able to ride the elevator, which had power from a separate source, to the surface. “When we opened the elevator door, rescue people were there,” Mullins said. “It was then we learned there had been an explosion.”
Mullins and the crew of men he worked with had no communication with the outside from the time they left their section until they reached the outside, he said. “They were hollering on the phone to 2 Left section, but there was no response,” he recalled.
Mullins stayed an additional two hours, hoping to learn his co-workers were okay. “The first person they brought out was Miles Sutherland,” he said. “He was in bad shape.”
Seeing his co-worker so badly injured made the explosion real to Mullins. He knew then there was little hope for any of the miners working in that section.
Sutherland and two others, although all badly burned from the explosion, survived their injuries. But six men and one woman working on 2 Left were killed instantly.
Mullins went home soon thereafter, not realizing he passed his fiancée somewhere along the road on her way to the explosion site.
Mullins said he always called Angie when he got off work. But someone else called her that night to tell her of the explosion. “They asked if I was her fiancée, then told her, ‘I just heard McClure 1 blowed the whole top of the mountain off,’” Mullins recalled.
His fiancée panicked and woke her parents, but her dad believed it was just a prank call. She wasn’t satisfied, however, until her mom drove her to the mine. There she ran into a man who worked with Mullins. He assured her that Mullins was safe and was on his way home.
It was a day or two after the explosion that Mullins realized what a close call he’d had. Because McClure No. 1 was a union mine, job openings there were posted. He had signed for the shuttle car operator position held by Mary Kay “Kat” Counts, the woman killed in the explosion. He said Counts had previously shoveled the belt line, a cold and unpleasant job. Mullins felt sorry for her working in the cold, though, so he erased his name from the job posting when he saw that she too had signed up for it. Counts was awarded the position. If Mullins hadn’t erased his name from the job posting, he may have been killed in the explosion.
McClure No. 1 was idled for a few weeks after the explosion. The entire ventilation system in 2 Left had to be replaced, so Mullins worked on the crew making repairs. He said he knew he had to earn a living so he returned to work. In the 22 years he worked in the mines, Mullins had several close calls and saw other coworkers killed underground. Still, he continued working in the mines, following in his daddy’s footsteps.
As the 30th anniversary of the McClure No. 1 Mine explosion approaches, Mullins said he thinks of those killed that fateful night, and remembers the way they laughed and joked each day before going underground.
He recalled that Kat Counts would drink soda every day. When she emptied each pop can, she would hang it on a wire or a roof bolt plate. Mullins said you would see the pop cans hanging near the belt line and know where Kat ate lunch. “When I would see the pop cans, it would make me smile and think about Kat,” he noted.
“I knew them well. I worked with them every day. I miss them and every time something comes on (the news) about a cave in or explosion, I think back,” he said. For Mullins and countless others, they will never be forgotten.
Killed in the McClure No. 1 Mine explosion were:
Mary K. (Kat) Counts, 51
Eugene W. Meade, 26
Covey J. French, 45
Forest Carter Riner, Jr., 58
Earnest Avery Hall, 30
Dale Stamper, Jr., 56
Luther Julian McCoy, 37
All of the miners killed had children. Riner was retiring and was reportedly working his last shift the night of the explosion.
Emmery Howard, 30
Harold J. Boyd, 25
Miles W. Sutherland, 51