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Attorneys Present Opening Arguments in Trial Over Wilberg Mine Fire

April 24, 1990

PROVO, Utah (AP) _ A faulty air compressor and ventilation system caused the fire that killed 27 coal miners in the Wilberg Mine in 1984, attorneys for Utah Power & Light Co. claimed in opening arguments.

UP&L and its insurance companies are seeking $86 million from Ingersoll- Rand, manufacturer of the compressor, and Kaiser Aluminum, maker of the ″overcasts″ or ducts that ventilated the mine.

Emery Mining Co., which operated the Wilberg for UP&L, is being sued by Ingersoll-Rand for gross negligence and recklessness. At the time of the fire, the mine was trying to set a production record.

Opening arguments began Monday in a courtroom set up at a hotel to handle large evidence displays and tables for the five sets of attorneys. The trial is expected to last about two months.

Paul Felt, representing UP&L, told jurors the utility would ″try to show Emery ran a good mine, not a perfect mine.″

Roland Stevens, attorney for the insurance companies that paid $64 million in claims to UP&L, said testimony would show how compressor design problems led to the fire and that extra safety features could have avoided the blaze.

Ingersoll-Rand attorney John Calimafde said the company became ″the fall guys for certain practices in that mine.″ He said the mine operators were really to blame for bypassing safety switches on the compressor, used to power mining machinery.

″You’ll shake your head in disbelief about the practices that existed in the mine that night,″ he told the jurors.

He also disputed plaintiffs’ claims about the origin of the fire, saying evidence would show the compressor was damaged by falling rock and that the fire was started by electrical cables.

Emery Mining attorney George Haley said miners did bypass the compressor’s safety switches, but added: ″If we had any idea the compressor could catch fire it wouldn’t have been in the mine.″

In addition, Haley said, the compressor was not being used the night of the fire.

″The only people who knew that compressor was a torpedo, was a bomb, was Ingersoll-Rand and they didn’t tell anyone. They didn’t tell us,″ he said.

He said Ingersoll-Rand knew the compressor was susceptible to flash fires under certain circumstances but never warned users.

Gary Weston, attorney for Kaiser, said his company made the aluminum overcasts to the specifications the mine requested and did not have anything to do with assembling and installing them.

The plaintiffs contend the corrugated metal should have been coated to withstand more heat. Had the overcast lasted an additional 15 minutes, they said, most or all of the miners would have escaped.

Weston said it was poor ventilation planning, inadequate safety training and subpar mining practices that contributed to the deaths and property loss.

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