Belle Isle, LA Salt Mine Explosion, June 1979



Calumet, La. (UPI) -- Rescue workers used gas masks Saturday to search for five victims of an explosion 1,200 feet below ground in the gas-filled, smoky caverns of a darkened salt mine with a long history of death and destruction.
Four bodies had been located by Saturday afternoon. The search continued for a fifth victim "with the hope that he might be found alive," a spokesman for Cargill Inc. said.
The blast occurred just before midnight Friday at the Belle Isle Salt Mine -- ironically, as workers were holding a safety meeting.
Seventeen other miners were injured. Four of them -- three men and one woman -- were hospitalized at Franklin Foundation Hoapital, two in guarded condition and two in fair condition. The other 13 were were threatened and released.
Survivors said the explosion came suddenly.
"We were talking about safety, about how they hadn't had a major accident in two or three years," said PRENTIS SHAW, JR., one of those hospitalized. "That's when we heard the wind coming out. It was slow and then it got real fast. The wind was whipping everything around."
"It was something like a hurricane," he said.
SHAW said he was with 10 other workers in a truck waiting to leave when the explosion occurred. The half-mile wide area filled with smoke and salt, he said, and darkened. The miners used the hats on their lights to make their way to the shaft, where cool, fresh air was rushing in.
"We sat there are waited for them to come down and get us, about an hour and half," said SHAW. "It might not have been that long -- I believe I went to sleep."
Another survivor described the noise the explosion made.
"It was just a little sound from the back of the mine and then everything started shaking," said JOSEPH BOUTTE, 25, of Jeanerette, La. "Everything came toward us like a dust storm."
The Belle Isle salt mine, located on a marshland island 90 miles southwest of New Orleans near the Gulf of Mexico, has killed dozens of persons in its long history.
In March 1968, 21 miners died in a flash fire that filled most of the cavern. Dozens of miners and their pack mules were buried alive in the mine in the late 1800s by an avalanche of salt. Those bodies never were recovered.
Three bodies were found shortly before noon Saturday in the dark, smoky, gas-filled cavern. The fourth was found about 2 p.m.
The dead were identified as RICHARD COLLINS, 31, of Patterson, La.; DONALD MAYON, 38, of Baldwin, La.; HERMAN ZIMMERMAN, 48, of Franklin, La., and AMEDEE OLIVIER, 23, of Jeanerette,La.
Those hospitalized were identified as PRENTIS SHAW, JR., 23, of Franklin, La.; ALTON J. OPPENHEIMER, 49, of Jeanerette; JASON MAYON, 23, of Franklin, and MRS. PEGGY JOHNSON BLAINE, 31, of New Iberia, La.

Galveston Daily News Texas 1979-06-10