JINCHENG, China - Methane, which naturally occurs in coal around the world, had steadily accumulated in the underground mine where more than 500 miners toiled to support their families in this rural, mostly poor area.
In the early morning hours, before many miners could escape to the surface, the fugitive methane popped. In all, 78 miners were killed, 114 were injured, according to government and media reports.
The scene could have been Hanna, Wyo., or Van Meter, Pa., in the early 1900s when coal was fueling the modern industrialization of the United States.
This particular disaster, however, snuffed 78 lives not 100 years ago, but just last month in rural Shanxi Provice. Here, coal is fueling an industrial revolution on a scale never before seen.
Tragedies such as the Feb. 22 Tunlan mine disaster are scenes too familiar in China today. Particularly alarming was the fact that the Tunlan was considered the crown jewel of mines in Shanxi - professionally managed, with strict safety guidelines and ventilation.
"This rung a bell that although we can do a good job of (managing methane) it is still a major safety threat," Huang Shengchu, president of the China Coal information Institute and National Institute of Occupation Safety, said via an interpreter.
David Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, had just arrived in the southern Shanxi city of Jincheng on the day of the Tunlan mine tragedy, along with several coal industry experts. Wendt organized a group of 25 international experts to attend the "Sino-U.S. New Energy Sci-Tech Forum and Conference on Coal Mine Methane Recovery and Utilization."
Wendt stressed that despite the scale of the disaster and China's dismal mine safety record, Chinese officials were sincere in their pledge to turn things around. They had, after all, just welcomed an international delegation of government and private enterprise in Shanxi to help deploy live-saving technology.
"I'm really impressed with the seriousness they have given this issue," Wendt said. "They realize the situation is intolerable."
Immediately following the Feb. 22 Tunlan mine disaster, the Chinese government removed the mine's top three managers and made assurances to the world that such accidents are unacceptable.
China's promise of a new era of mine safety isn't just empty public relations. China has, in fact, cracked down on the industry, shutting down thousands of small, illegal coal operations across the country in recent years after humiliating reports of continued mine fatalities and even human rights abuses such as child labor.
Although still dismal, the results are spelled out in the annual number of Chinese miners killed.
Some 6,027 Chinese coal miners were killed on the job in 2004, according to media reports. By 2007, the annual number of fatalities shrunk to a still-dismal 3,786 - and 3,200 died in 2008.
As one Chinese official had said just days before the Tunlan mine accident, the people of Shanxi have no more tears left to cry for their fallen miners.
"Mining safety is a huge issue, and health concerns in general," Wendt said.
Two top government officials were ousted in 2006 after a tragic mine flood in Shanxi Province, and police detained more than a dozen mine executives and workers for allegedly trying to cover up the scale of the accident.
China imposes a per-ton tax on coal to go toward safety. Hu Yuhong, deputy director-general state administrator of work safety for the China National Coal Association, said China spends $3 billion each year to improve coal mine safety, because it is the "top killer."
Coal mine executives at the Sino-U.S. New Energy forum testified that simply harnessing coal mine methane isn't a comprehensive safety plan. What's needed, and what's being implemented, is a focus on educating and training
A straight comparison to the U.S. coal industry would suggest a stark comparison: While China mined 2.6 billion tons in 2008 (some 840,000 tons per mine fatality), 2008 marked a safety record in the United States: 1.15 billion tons of coal produced and 51 coal mine fatalities (22.5 million tons per mine fatality).
Or think about it this way: The 13 active Powder River Basin mines in Wyoming produced more than 446 million tons with one fatality in 2008. The Tunlan coal mine where 78 Chinese miners died in a single accident in February has an annual production capacity of about 5 million tons.
But the comparison really isn't fair. The United States killed coal miners by the dozens, too, when it was a developing nation, just as China is today.
"All of these incidents brought about major changes in our law. And the industry recognized these incidents were not healthy for their business or their industry and started looking for ways to protect people, if for no other reason from a cost standpoint," said Ronald Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health and Safety & Training.
In a phone interview, Wooten said Chinese officials are making frequent trips to the United States to learn about mine safety practices and technology. He said Chinese officials have expressed interest in the emergency chambers and "self-contained rescuers" requirements for underground mines that came about from the 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia.
"I think you can see our industry evolved through these kinds of incidents and accidents," Wooten said. "It's a smaller world today, so more information and technology is available to China now if they choose to use it."
The challenge for China today is that the country's electrical power industry is 80 percent reliant on coal, and China is on a fast track to modernize. They'll have to make huge institutional mine safety changes on the run.
Speaking at the Sino-U.S. New Energy forum, Wang Renqing, director of the Jincheng Municipal Science and Technology Bureau, said China needs to place more emphasis on human resource development.
China must launch a massive effort to educate and train the next generation of engineers to deploy the practices and technologies that not only harness coal mine methane for power, but make mining safer.
"We need talented people and a strong team of experts," Wang said.
Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 577-6069 or email@example.com.