Mine entrance

KEYSTONE — An abandoned mine that was the scene of a recent tragedy in McDowell County will remain under 24-hour guard to prevent more people from trying to enter it before it’s resealed.

Mine rescuers stated Thursday that due to dangerous conditions including low oxygen levels and the possibility of roof collapses, they had to end the search for 30-year-old Clay Epperly of Keystone. Epperly had been inside the abandoned mine since 2 a.m. Aug. 30.  The Mine Health and Safety Administration brought in heavy equipment to enlarge the mine’s entrance and large fans to ventilate it, but they were unable to locate Epperly.

The road leading to the mine was blocked Saturday by a backhoe and the pickup trucks of Bluestone Coal employees. One employee who declined to give his name said guards would remain at the former mine site “day and night” to ensure that nobody else attempts to enter the mine.

“I just hate to see this mine become his grave,” the man said. As of Saturday, plans called for resealing the mine Tuesday.

The mine was opened in 1916 and closed in 1987. Rescue personnel on the scene estimated that the tunnel system was about as large as the city of Huntington.

Epperly entered the mine along with Steve Cordle, 38, of Northfork, Brandon Collins, 35, of Kimball and Justin Bolen, 22, of Kimball entered the mine approximately 10 p.m. Aug. 29. Epperly reportedly became separated from them and they went back to look for him at 2 a.m. Aug. 30.

Senior Trooper B.D. Gillespie of the West Virginia State Police Princeton Detachment, who was the investigating officer, said that one of the three men who came out of the mine said they had gone in to search for copper trolley cables. In 2015, another man became lost in the mine while searching for copper. A man who was with him waited a day before reporting him missing. When rescue workers found him, he was unconscious, but revived at the scene.

In Epperly’s case, law enforcement authorities were notified after McDowell County 911 received an anonymous call at 10:51 a.m. Aug. 30, Gillespie said. Cordle, Collins and Bolen were located, and left the scene on their own after receiving oxygen. They are facing charges including felony breaking and entering, and attempt to commit a felony.

Troopers on duty Saturday at the Welch detachment recalled the dangerous mine conditions MSHA personnel had described to them and the 2015 incident in which another man became lost while searching the mine for copper.

Law enforcement personnel planned to visit the Keystone area and the mine site regularly, and guards could contact officers if there were any problems, Trooper J.A. Tupper said.


Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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