BARTON, Md. - Workers found the bodies of two miners in the cabs of heavy machinery Friday, three days after they were buried when a wall section collapsed in an open-pit coal mine.
The men appeared to have died instantly, said Bob Cornett, acting regional director for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Their remains were found beneath at least 45 feet of rocks and dirt in the battered backhoe and bulldozer.
"With the extensive damage I saw on the equipment, I don't think that we worried whether they suffocated to death," he said.
Workers spotted both pieces of equipment side by side Thursday night after removing thousands of tons of debris. The machines in the western Maryland mine were right side up but the belted tracks that propel the backhoe had been blown sideways and the blade had come off the bulldozer, Cornett said.
The MSHA identified the bulldozer operator as Mike Wilt, 37, and the backhoe operator as Dale Jones, 52.
The section of the 150-foot high wall collapsed at the Tri-Star Mining Inc. site near Barton, about 150 miles west of Baltimore.
The cause of the collapse was under investigation. Cornett said heavy rain and the ground freezing and thawing could be a factor.
The mine had no fatal injuries since at least 1995 and was not cited for violations in its most recent inspection, which began March 5, according to MSHA. It employed 51 people at the end of 2006 and produced nearly 653,000 tons of coal last year.
Wilt, 37, was married, with children and a pregnant wife, said Rick Rafferty, who grew up with Wilt and last saw him about six weeks before the accident.
"He was a real good guy," Rafferty said. "He'd go out of his way to do anything for anybody."
Jones, 52, was a 15-year veteran coal miner who coached youth baseball in his spare time. Like Wilt, he was part of a proud brotherhood of miners, coal-truck drivers and other workers in the state's shrinking coal industry.
"They are all such a close-knit family," said Debby Dunnivan, whose late husband, James, was a coal hauler. "They are a family."
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