South Louisiana no stranger to salt mine disasters

St. Mary Parish

AVERY ISLAND, La. (KLFY) — With officials still looking for two missing miners in today’s salt mine collapse in Avery Island, some South Louisiana residents may be reminded that salt mine disasters have a deadly history in the area.

The deadliest salt mine disaster in South Louisiana history killed 21 miners 1,200 feet below sea level on March 5, 1968, at Belle Isle in St. Mary Parish, according to the United States Mine Rescue Association (USMRA). The mine was operated by Cargill. They were killed when a fire broke out in the mine. Twenty of the men died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The 21st man died from a massive skull fracture.

To this day, the cause of the fire remains unknown. According to the USRMA, it appears that the fire originated in the lower part of the shaft at about, or below, the mining level.

“The cause of the fire could not be determined with certainly,” states the website. “An electrical source is a possibility, but no positive evidence to sustain such source was observed. The open flame of the oxyacetylene torch is a distinct possibility; grease fires, though extinguished promptly, reportedly had occurred on occasion, when using the torch to assist lubrication. Frictional ignition of the rubber belt of the bucket elevating conveyor cannot be ignored, particularly in view of its plywood enclosure and the contiguous ladderways and timbers.”

In 1967, nearly seven months before the fatal fire, the U.S. Bureau of Mines had suggested better fire protection for the mine and had also recommended a second shaft be sunk, providing for more ventilation and for an additional escape exit. No such measures were taken, though it remains unclear how much a second shaft would have helped the miners in the 1968 disaster.

Just over 10 years later, on June 8, 1979, five miners were killed in an explosion in Cargill’s Belle Isle mine, according to the USRMA.

Shortly before 11 p.m., a scheduled blast was initiated in the mine, but 10 minutes later, a gas explosion occurred, “sending intensely hot hurricane-like winds throughout the mine.”

There were a total of 22 miners underground at the time. Seventeen survived.

“One group of six miners successfully dialed the surface with a make-shift telephone improvised from two damaged telephones,” stated the website. “Surface workers responded by clearing obstructions from a nearby shaft, and then sending down a mancage, which hoisted the miners to safety.  Meanwhile, another group of 17 miners spent about an hour inching toward a shaft through pitch-dark, intensely hot, debris-filled corridors.”

A report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) determined that the scheduled blast triggered an “outburst” of about 15,750 tons of broken salt and flammable gases — including methane and other hydrocarbons.

In 1985, the Belle Isle mine was purposefully flooded.

Louisiana’s most famous mine disaster, however, did not involve a loss of life. On Nov. 20, 1980, an oil rig in Lake Peigneur was doing exploratory drilling when they punctured the Diamond Crystal Salt Company’s salt dome below Jefferson Island. The hole resulted in a massive sinkhole, which drained the lake and caused the Delcambre Canal to backflow into the hole. Salt water from the Gulf of Mexico actually flowed backward up the canal and into the sinkhole.

No lives were lost, though three dogs were reported killed.

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