Tragedy Underground | PostIndependent.com

Tragedy Underground

Dennis WebbPost Independent Staff
Post Independent/Kara K. Pearson
ALL |

Stacey Patch Bernot, of Carbondale, remembers little of her father, who died 25 years ago today.But reminders of him are all around her.A baseball field is named in Ron Patch’s memory at Roaring Fork High School.And in a bittersweet twist, Bernot coaches soccer at Miners Park in Carbondale. It’s dedicated to Patch and the 14 others who died in an explosion at Mid-Continent Resources’ Dutch Creek No. 1 mine at Coal Basin near Redstone on April 15, 1981.Bernot said the soccer season starts right around this time of year, which can make it tough for her when she heads to the park.”It’s great that I’m coaching, my kids are enjoying that park, but every time I go there I think of my dad,” she said.Such memorials, however, are reminders of how deeply local communities were impacted by the accident. It looms large in the minds of many local residents, even a quarter century later.Witness to destructionBill Kimminau, 47, is a Glenwood Springs police lieutenant today, but 25 years ago was scheduled to work the graveyard shift at the mine when he got the call that he should stay home.He said it was hard for him when he finally was allowed to go back in the mine many days later and saw firsthand “just the destruction that is caused by something like that.”Normally the mine interior reflected a pale white light from rock dust, but instead it was blackened by coal dust, and things were torn up and knocked down all over the place. It was an eye-opener about what could happen in a mine, Kimminau said.

What happened 25 years ago was that methane gas exploded in the mine. Investigators concluded the gas was ignited by an electrical spark. The entire mine face, a mile and a half underground, exploded. Fifteen trapped miners died and several survived.Glenwood Springs resident Mike Patch, Bernot’s older brother, remembers getting the news about the accident, then anxiously waiting over two nights and a day before finally having his worst fears about his father’s fate confirmed.Patch said it made it hard to imagine what families in West Virginia went through in January when they were told their loved ones apparently had survived a mine explosion, only to learn later that the initial report was wrong and all but one miner had died.”I know what I went through, and to have that happen and compound it, I can’t imagine that,” he said.Filling in the blanksFor Bernot, it was interesting to see a Denver television channel use the West Virginia accident as an opportunity to report on the history of Colorado mine disasters, and to see an old video clip on the accident that claimed her father and 14 others. It made her realize what a big deal the Mid-Continent disaster was at the time, and shed a little bit more light on a crucial moment in her life.Bernot had just turned 3 when her father died. She remembers that he had been putting in a basketball court at the family’s home in the days before he died.Following the explosion, “people showed up and finished off the basketball court. I just remember the community helping all of us out,” she said.For Bernot, putting handprints into the concrete floor of the court is one of the few distinct memories of that time in her life, and as she grew older those handprints remained a physical reminder of the time of her father’s death.Being older, Bernot’s brothers, Mike and Rod, knew their father better.”They fill me in. They talk about growing up with him,” she said.

Mike Patch, who was 13 when his dad died, said some of his fondest memories of his father involve him taking them hunting and fishing.Ron Patch had been a foreman at Mid-Continent, and Mike heard a lot about him from his co-workers following his death.”People would come around and say, ‘Your dad was a great man and wasn’t one that shouted orders and things like that, was hands-on and did the same jobs as the next guy. … There were a lot of people that really respected him as a man and a foreman doing his job.”Patch said that in the last few years of his dad’s life, he started hearing him express concerns about the safety of mine work. Perhaps he always had those concerns and his son was becoming old enough to be more aware of them. Or maybe his father, who was 34 when he died, was starting to think more about his own mortality and about making sure he would be around for his family, Patch said.”You always value your life, but me as a parent now, I have four kids myself and I look at them, that is my life,” he said.The same went for his father. “It was 100 percent kids and family all the time,” Patch said.Bernot said that as a wife and the mother of two children, she thinks a lot about how much her father missed out on, dying so young, as he was in the middle of raising his family.Mine work’s appealKimminau said he didn’t think about the danger of his job much, just as he doesn’t dwell now on the dangers that go along with police work.”You took the precautions they taught you to take. Just like anyone else going to work anywhere else, it was just that was your job,” he said.Kimminau had generational ties to coal mining in a region the industry once dominated. His grandmother was born at Sunlight when it was a mining town, and his dad worked at the mine in South Canyon, until about the time Kimminau was born. Kimminau’s dad was hospitalized once for mining injuries, but didn’t try to talk his son out of that line of work.

“He said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, do it, but be careful.'”Kimminau generally enjoyed the job, and the challenge of it, not to mention how lucrative it was for a young person in what was a very different economic time in Garfield County.”Growing up, it was just one of the highest-paying jobs around here that you could get without a college education, so a lot of people worked in the mines,” he said.Kimminau only worked for about a year at Mid-Continent, but he didn’t quit because of the explosion and any concerns about safety. He got a job with the Garfield County Road and Bridge Department, thus shortening his commute. In 1985 he became an investigator with the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, and he joined the police force in 1989.Even today, though, Kimminau daydreams about what it would be like to go back into coal mining.”There are times I do think about it and miss the job. It was hard work but it wasn’t as bad as people think,” he said.Tests of characterMine work built character. Likewise, losing her father in a mining accident contributed to Bernot’s character. Her strength as a child was tested even more severely when her mother, Loretta, and sister, Brenda, died in a car accident on Thanksgiving Day, 1986. A basketball tournament later was named after Bernot’s sister, who was a junior in high school when she died.Bernot’s brothers were in college by then. She moved in with her neighbors, Paul and Celia Nieslanik, who had been good friends of her parents and raised her along with their own five children.She said she dealt with typical feelings of resentment for a time.”All you want is your family, and you don’t have it,” she said.

But with the help of the Nieslaniks, her brothers and her faith, Bernot kept things together in her life as she grew to adulthood. Today, she does her part for a community that she said has done much to help her in times of need. She even serves as a town trustee, and received the top number of votes in the town election earlier this month.”I’ve had to overcome things, but giving back to the community isn’t something that takes a second thought for me. I really enjoy it,” Bernot said.Patch is happy about the way his little sister has coped so well with so many challenges.”I’m really proud of her and glad to see her doing so well,” he said.Those affected by the 1981 disaster have survived and moved on, but the mine itself did not fare so well. It closed a decade later. Many of the domestic steel mills it supplied shut down during the 1980s, and shipping costs made it hard to compete overseas. A final blow came from the same problem of methane gas that had dogged the mine all of its days. An uncontrollable methane gas fire forced the mine to close for six weeks in 1990.Mid-Continent declared bankruptcy in 1992, and the reclamation of Coal Basin was completed in 2000.Despite the mine’s sometimes tragic history, it was hard for Kimminau to see it close.”It was part of the valley. I’ve often wanted to try and go back up (to see it), but the people I’ve talked to say everything’s been reclaimed so much I probably wouldn’t even recognize it anymore,” he said.For Kimminau and others, only memories remain of Mid-Continent, and of the people who worked there and sometimes died there. And today, a new generation of adults such as Bernot and Patch is helping keep alive the memories of those who perished in an especially deadly tragedy 25 years ago.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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