Family of miner killed in collapse intends 'to keep America running'

Slab of rock fell atop miners

Published: Saturday, March 23 2013 9:29 p.m. MDT

Julie and Derk Jones talk about the death of their son Elam Jones, who died in a collapse at the Rhino Mine Friday, at the Huntington City Hall in Huntington on Saturday, March 23, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

HUNTINGTON — The earthen ceiling deep inside of the Rhino Mine collapsed on two workers Friday and somehow, the mother of the man who died knew it was coming.

Julie Jones, a Huntington city councilwoman and the mother of 29-year-old miner, Elam Jones, said her "spirit knew." She said she tried to be strong for her family when news of her son's death was delivered Friday, but Saturday, she struggled with various emotions.

"Today, I think reality is setting in," she said. "I'm not mad, but I am."

Investigators with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration visited the Rhino Mine in Bear Canyon Saturday. It was determined that a 10-by-10 foot, 22-inch thick slab of rock fell on Elam Jones and Dallen McFarlane, killing Jones and injuring McFarlane, MSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder said.

The duo had been retreat mining when the collapse occurred, just before 3:15 p.m. on Friday. The process, considered dangerous, involves removal of the last resources from an area of the mine just before support pillars are pulled away.

Retreat mining represents just 10 percent of the coal mining process, but accounts for 25 percent of the deaths involving coal miners, Lawder said.

The same process is what killed six miners in August 2007, when the walls of the Crandall Canyon Mine collapsed, causing seismic repercussions. Three rescuers were also killed while trying to reach the men who were believed to be trapped more than 3 miles inside the mine.

After 26 days and multiple attempts to get even a peek inside the obstructed mine, the search was called off and the men remain entombed at Crandall Canyon. The owner of that mine — UtahAmerican Energy, Inc. and Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. — had previously and has subsequently been cited for bad mining practices.

The Crandall Canyon Mine has been sealed indefinitely and the men killed there have been memorialized with headstones at the mouth of the mine and a statue standing within the city, serves as a reminder of the incident.

The Rhino Mine is owned by Kentucky-based Rhino Resource Partners and operated locally by the Castle Valley Mining Complex. It is the only Utah mine run by Rhino and Derk Jones, Elam's father, said he believes the mine was safe.

"The mountains change. The weather changes in five minutes in Utah," he said.

Rhino acquired the mine, located 10 miles west of Huntington, in 2010 and began extraction of coal there in January 2011. By the end of 2012, more than 1 million tons of steam coal had been produced, with promise of tens of millions more believed to be underground.

The mine maintained a below-average injury rate in 2012, but the Jones family said they knew it could end up being a perilous job. The gate to Rhino Mine remained locked Saturday and only MSHA investigators and other officials were going in and out.

"I've been in the mining industry for 36 years and my father spent over 40 years in a mine," Derk Jones said. "Over the years, you see people lose their lives. You try to prepare yourself for it because it might happen to you, it might happen to your best friend, but you really can't prepare yourself."

He said he and his son "lived our lives together."

The two had similar interests — they loved the outdoors, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, "and we loved coal mining," Derk Jones said. Despite his son's misfortune, he will return to work at the Deer Creek Mine, where he said he has a job to do.

Because of his love of coal mining, he's not even sure he'll retire when he becomes eligible later this year.

"My guys and every other coal miner are the heartbeat of America because we dig the coal so you can have the electricity," said Julie Jones. "These coal miners love this nation and love their families and love coal."

The Deer Creek Mine, Derk Jones said, has a continuous belt line leading right from the coal mine to the Huntington pipeline.

"Every pound of coal we produce goes right into that pipeline to generate the power that goes out to grid," he said.

The Jones family said it is an honor to be a coal miner, "to keep America running."

Julie Jones said her adventurous son knew he'd die in a coal mine and "that's where he'd have wanted it."

Elam Jones leaves behind a wife, Jacque Jones, and two young sons, ages 4 and 5.

McFarlane, 26, was treated for a badly broken leg and other injuries from Friday's collapse, but was released from the Castleview Hospital and was recuperating at his home. He declined on Saturday to comment on the experience.

A funeral for Elam Jones has been set for 11 a.m. Wednesday, at the LDS stake center on Main Street in Huntington.

"We're a strong family and we have lots of friends and lots of family," Julie Jones said. "We have tons of family and we know we have their prayers and their support. They're all there for us."

Contributing: Mike Anderson

E-mail: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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