Newly unemployed Blackjewel coal miners blockaded railroad tracks leading to their old mine on August 23, 2019 in Cumberland in Harlan County. The paychecks of more than 300 miners bounced when the company declared bankruptcy. When miners learned the company was shipping out a final load of coal, they blocked the tracks for weeks. They were eventually paid. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The search for a worker missing in the collapse of an idle coal-preparation plant is moving into a new phase as rescuers who have been combing through the wreckage now plan to use heavy equipment to remove debris, emergency officials said Thursday.
One worker, pinned under a metal beam, died Wednesday after being found by rescuers. On Thursday, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Paula Daniels, the wife of Billy “Bo” Daniels, confirmed he was the man who died.
She told the newspaper that with his consent one of his legs had been surgically amputated in an attempt to free him.
The company that owns the collapsed structure in Martin County is headed by Jeremy Hoops, whose father Jeffery Hoops gained notoriety in 2019 when bankrupt coal company, Blackjewel, withheld final paychecks from employees who then blocked a coal train for two months. The elder Hoops was Blackjewel’s CEO and president.
Records with the West Virginia secretary of state identify Jeremy Hoops as manager of Lexington Coal Co., LLC based in Milton, West Virginia.
The company was issued a mining permit by the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources on Dec. 4, 2018 for the 16.5-acre site that includes the Pontiki coal preparation plant, which collapsed Tuesday evening on two workers reportedly employed by a company that is dismantling it. Local officials have identified both of them as Pike County residents.
Demolition of the structure is part of the state-permitted reclamation plan for the site.
Earlier Thursday, Jeremy Slinker, Kentucky Emergency Management director, told media that the rescue operation is moving into a new phase by removing debris in hopes of finding the still missing worker. Emergency management officials and rescuers from all over Kentucky have searched the unstable debris, using cameras, listening devices and dogs.
Slinker said rescuers had searched all the spaces and voids in the rubble and now were making arrangements for moving in heavy equipment to remove the wreckage. The briefing was posted by The Mountain Citizen newspaper on its Facebook page.
Martin County Sheriff John Kirk in an exclusive interview with The Mountain Citizen on Wednesday praised the rescuers for braving “a very dangerous situation.” He said search crews have “crawled beneath tons and tons of steel and concrete” that has been “snapping and popping.”
Kirk said the man who died was found alive. He died as workers tried to extricate him from beneath a beam, Kirk said. Because there’s no cell service at the site, the victim was unable to speak to his wife, Kirk said, but they were able to exchange some final words with each other.
The Lantern phoned a Lexington Coal Co. number in West Virginia Thursday afternoon; the voicemail box was full.
Blackjewel’s Harlan County miners, who gained national fame, eventually were paid when the company agreed to pay about 1,100 workers some $5.1 million in unpaid wages.
The bankruptcy of Blackjewel and its parent company, Revelation Energy, was the subject of an investigation by Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica into how bankruptcy laws allow coal companies to escape environmental and other obligations.
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