TODAY   |  April 10, 2010

Inside the culture of coal mining

Former coal miner Homer Hickam, the author of several books on the topic, joins TODAY’s Lester Holt to discuss the West Virginia disaster that claimed the lives of 29 men.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> for the investigation.

>> a former coal miner who has written several books on mines , thank you for coming on with us.

>> good morning lester.

>> not the outcome that any of us perhaps expected or were hoping for. we heard from tom there about this process of recovering the bodies. is there still a fair amount of danger as these searchers and recovery crews enter that mine?

>> there is of course because methane is still probably coming out of that coal by the buckets. but this is their world , these mine rescuers are well trained. the mine safety and health academy is not 50 miles from this accident. these guys are true heroes , they know exactly what they're doing. as was mentioned, they're going to go get these miners and bring them out with dignity. so, you know, everyone involved with coal mining is just shocked this morning. we never thought that we would have an accident of this size with a blast with this amount of energy . coal miners are smart , they're savvy, i hoped that these four would be able to self- rescue themselves. i don't think they ever had a chance, this blast was so huge.

>> i think a lot of us were stunned to hear that the searchers went past these four bodies but never saw them because of the conditions inside. we know that they were turned away on a couple of occasions. what about the suddenness of all of this, we're hearing methane week, so there could have been no warning then?

>> this blast to me is very, very mysterious. methane is a sneaky gas, it can go up into the mine and -- this happened at shift change, and we know a lot of accidents that happen at shift change, but the amount of methane that caused this kind of explosion should have been picked up with the equipment that the might have beeners carry. this shift change brought in some sort of ignition spark . but all this is going to come out, again in a modern american coal mine this should not happen.

>> are you telling me that there's technology out there that's not being used or not being deployed properly?

>> we know very well how to ventilate a mine. every miner, that's at the top of their training. this mine was very deep. the coal that they were mining exuded methane by the buckets, and there were also a lot of fractures roofs. you can bet that the massey mining engineers were paying a lot of attention to it. so were the inspectors, they were in there a lot. they knew how difficult the working conditions were. how it was possible for that amount of methane to build up, that really boggles my brain. and i think we're going to find that this is not quite so straight forward as we thought. something happened here that was very unusual.

>> we'll all look forward to hearing the answers as they come. homer hickman, thank you for being on with us