Price, Utah A routine procedure in a coal mine inadvertently started a fire that apparently set off a methane gas explosion early Tuesday, killing two workers and injuring 12 others.
Four miners escaped uninjured from the blaze at the Willow Creek Mine, about 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The fire started in the area where coal was being mined, about 2,000 feet beneath the surface.
Investigators suspect the fire started when the ceiling of part of the mine shaft was allowed to collapse a normal part of the mining operation, said Ron Spangler, a spokesman for mine owner RAG Coal International of Essen, Germany.
But the roof collapse apparently created sparks that started a fire and ignited a secondary explosion that may have been fueled by a pocket of methane gas, Spangler said. The gas is commonly found in coal seams.
RAG Coal identified the dead workers as Cory Nielson and Shane Stansfield. Of the 12 injured workers, one was in critical condition, and another was in serious condition.
It was the mine's second serious fire in the past two years. Methane ignited in November 1998 and closed the mine for a year. Forty-six miners escaped that fire unharmed, and safety officials credited a system that uses pagers to alert miners of the danger.
The mine employs about 340 people and can produce 5 million tons of coal a year, spokesman Ulrich Wegmann said.
Federal Mine Safety Health Administration investigators were on the scene and a preliminary report was expected in several days.
Tom Bingham, president of the Utah Mining Assn., said air monitoring in coal mines has become so precise that fires are often detected even before flames can erupt. For a fire to catch so many people unaware, he said, it must have been very sudden.
"That particular mine is what they would refer to as a 'gassy' mine," Bingham said. "There is a lot of methane in that particular area, and that would probably have something to do with it."