Richard Coots, Jr. wasn’t killed in a massive explosion, and the accident that claimed him barely made a ripple of news beyond Eastern Kentucky. He died the way coal miners typically die on the job, in one- or two-man tragedies. His death was not followed by a candlelight vigil.
On Oct. 7, 2011, Coots was killed in Owlco Energy Mine No. 1, in Letcher County, Ky. He was trying to fix a busted conveyor belt when he was crushed by a large piece of mining machinery. His body was carried out of the mine with the help of his younger brother, Jeremy Coots, who was working nearby. The elder Coots, who was known simply as "Junior," was only 23 years old.
On Thursday the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released its investigation into Coots' death. Federal officials determined that Coots was killed because the management at Owlco had failed to take the necessary precautions for the repair and hadn't trained its miners properly. The accident was deemed "correctable through reasonable management controls." Owlco has not yet been fined for any failings.
"Richard Coots is the story of the Appalachian coal miner," says Tony Oppegard, the lawyer and mine-safety expert representing Coots' widow, Kayla. "He's a young guy, he's only been at the mine for six weeks, he's working at a little doghole operation trying to support his family, and this accident never should have happened. Now you have a young widow with two children to support, all because you have an operator who doesn't care to do things the right way."
According to the accident investigation, a piece of mining machinery known as the bridge conveyor had broken down during the shift before Coots'. The bridge conveyor acts as a conveyor belt running coal out of the mine, and so long as it was down the mine couldn't produce coal. In order to fix what was broken, the miners needed to prop the bridge up. But rather than use blocks that are designated for such tasks, the foreman and another miner slipped a large rock beneath the suspended conveyer bridge, according to the report.
The repairs weren't finished by the time Coots' night shift started. Working with other miners, Coots crawled under the conveyor bridge to remove the damaged chains. At some point, the bridge slipped off the rock, pinning Coots to the floor of the mine. "Get it off me!" he shouted to his brother and another co-worker. By the time the miners managed to lift the bridge, Coots was unresponsive. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and pronounced dead at 4:10 a.m., an hour and a half after he was pulled from the mine.
Coots had been mining since he'd gotten out of high school five years earlier, though he'd been at Owlco for only a month and a half. The report cites "deficiencies with the training" that Coots received at Owlco, and notes that managers at the mine hadn’t made sure the bridge conveyor was held in place while Coots and others worked on it. After Coots died, Owlco was forced to develop a written procedure for such repairs and employees had to be trained on how to perform them. "The training records for the other miners were examined and deficiencies were found for other company employees," the investigation reads.
Early Friday, Oppegard asked MSHA to amend its report, arguing that the mine foreman knew the repairs were being done improperly but allowed them to proceed anyway. According to the Coots family, the appropriate blocks to prop up the bridge were located nearby in the mine and could have been picked up in minutes. Oppegard also argued that mine management hadn’t performed and recorded the necessary shift examinations so that miners would know of any dangers in the mine.
The phone at Owlco was not answered Friday when a reporter called seeking comment.
When he died, Coots left behind two daughters, a 4-year-old and a 2-month-old. Coots' other younger brother, Justin, 20, died in a 2010 car crash in Kentucky. He, too, was a miner, and he was driving home from work when the accident occurred, according to NBC Lexington.
Coots' widow, Kayla, has not filed a lawsuit against Owlco. The only payments she's received due to the accident are from her husband's worker compensation benefits, according to Oppegard.
At some companies, the pressure to keep coal moving can be tremendous, and miners are often discouraged from complaining about work conditions. According to federal officials who investigated the Upper Big Branch disaster, which claimed 29 lives in West Virginia in 2010, miners who spoke out about safety in the mine were threatened with dismissal, and mine officials maintained two sets of books in order to cover up safety problems from investigators.
Kentucky led the nation in mining deaths last year with eight. All told, 21 American coal miners were killed on the job in 2011, down from 48 in the year of Upper Big Branch, according to data from MSHA. Unlike with massive tragedies like Upper Big Branch, most miners are killed in isolated and little-noticed incidents, like Coots was. Many die in smaller mines that have little or no union presence and relatively light oversight from federal or state agencies.
"This is exactly the kind of fatality that you usually never hear about," says Oppegard. "One guy is killed in a little non-union mine and no one hears a thing."
Read MSHA's investigative report on Coots' death: