When the world came to an end
For those working outside an underground mine, the sound generated by a fan is part of the rhythm of daily life. “You hear the fan all day, and you kind of just get immune to it,” explained Greg Clay, the purchasing agent who sometimes acted as a dispatcher at the Upper Big Branch Mine.1
At the time of the explosion, Upper Big Branch was ventilated by three large fans. The fan at the South Portal exhausted air from the south side of the mine. Air from the North Portal fan and the Ellis Portal was pulled toward the opposite end of UBB and out of the mine by the Bandytown fan.
On the afternoon of April 5, as Clay sat at his desk waiting for the 3:00 p.m. production report, he wasn’t paying too much attention to the North Portal fan until he heard a loud noise, which he described as a “bam.”2
Joshua Williams, a young miner who was on a mantrip exiting the mine, described the moment as “when the world came to an end.”3
The sensation Williams and Clay described occurred deep inside the Upper Big Branch mine as a series of explosions tore through most of the working parts of the mine – blasts that occurred within milliseconds, in such rapid succession that they sounded like one explosion. When it was over, all the eyewitnesses – those who were working at the point of ignition and could testify with absolute certainty as to what transpired in the minutes just before and just after 3:00 p.m. on April 5, 2010 – lay dead. However, evidence left behind suggests the following conclusions can be drawn:
As the shearer operator cut into the sandstone top of the longwall, the friction created sparks. Sparking occurs frequently in underground mining, and the Upper Big Branch mine was no exception. Typically, when machinery cuts into coal, there is little sparking because the coal is soft. When shearer bits hit rock surrounding coal, sparks fly. On April 5, 2010, the sparks ignited a pocket of methane or natural gas that likely had risen from the floor or migrated from the gob – a previously mined area located behind the longwall – onto the longwall face where the shearer was cutting.
Although the shearer was equipped with water sprays that are designed to douse the flame at the point of ignition, later testing found that the sprays on the shearer were ineffective because some had been removed and some were clogged. The crew could do nothing to halt the propagation of the fireball as it ignited coal dust that had built up in the Tailgate 1 North area. As the flame propagated, it formed the shape of a wedge that grew to a massive slug that sped through the mine, up to the roof and down to the floor.
The explosion reported in the media as a single event actually was a series of explosions created as the compressed air on the leading edge of the force caused the coal dust to become airborne. Thus, the explosion generated its own fuel with the air/dust mixture behaving like a line of gunpowder carrying the blast forward in multiple directions – toward the outside of the mine, deeper into the tailgate and along the longwall face toward Headgate 22, Tailgate 22 and 9 North.
The line of the explosion raced out of the tailgate and through crossover 21. While the main force was concentrated in the track entry, it also spread through the crosscuts to the left and right as it encountered fresh coal dust. Once it crossed the connector, it traveled down the longwall Headgate 2 North, up the 6 North belt entry and 7 North belt and on to Headgate 22, where it reached its strongest levels. When the force reached the end of the entry on Headgate 22, it reversed course and raced back out, obliterating everything in its path.4
If the ventilation system at UBB had been operating properly, lethal gases such as those that triggered the explosion would have been cleared away from the face. An effective ventilation system would have swept contaminated air away from working sections and into the return. It also would have exerted positive pressure on the gob to keep the gases away from the working face. At UBB, much of this air exited from the back of the mine, drawn by the pulling force of the Bandytown fan. Because the ventilation at UBB was disrupted over the Easter weekend when the “de-watering” pumps failed and allowed water to accumulate in the entries leading to the fan, the flow of air was impeded.
Evidence revealed5 that shortly before the initial explosion, the longwall crew had moved away from the shearer. This unanticipated movement suggests that a member or members of the crew had spotted trouble. In all likelihood, crew members observed the ball of flame at the shearer moving to the tailgate entry, and one of them called out to the shearer operator in the headgate entry (the entry at the longwall face), alerting him to problems. The longwall shearer manual disconnect stop button, located at the longwall headgate, was depressed, cutting power to the longwall at 2:59:38 p.m.6
The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel finds significant the fact that the headgate operator de-energized the longwall through a two-step process and shut off the water to the longwall. This shutdown is standard industry procedure when potentially serious problems occur on a longwall, and it is something that had to be done manually.7
On the surface, Greg Clay, purchasing agent and dispatcher, jumped from his chair and looked out the window. He could see rock dust and debris blowing out of the portals and said “it just sounded like jet engines.”8
“The air was just gushing out of the portals. And then you could hear the fan just making a … real dull sound,” he said. Clay said the sound continued for three and a half or four minutes. “Then it just went back to its normal sound. And the air quit coming out,” he said.9
Dispatcher Adam Jenkins recalled “a white smoke started pouring out the portals, and it sounded like thunder. It was constant.”10
RULED OUT: Earthquakes, thunderstorms and barometric pressure
At the time of the April 5, 2010, explosion, rumors circulated that earthquakes, thunderstorms and/or other severeweather triggered the blast. After examining information acquired from scientists, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel has ruled out any connection between the explosion and either weather events or earthquakes.
The two concerns raised in reference to the thunderstorms that occurred in the area were lightning and barometric pressure.
Lightning: Lightning strikes are tracked by an independent company, Vaisala. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration relies upon their reports. The GIIP obtained Vaisala’s report for April 5, 2010, which included information from 6:00 a.m. on April 5 to 6:00 a.m. on April 6. The report was issued for the Performance Coal Company location, using their specific latitude and longitude and using a search radius of 10 miles. According to the report, 293 lightning strikes were detected for the given time period and location; however, these strikes occurred either in the morning of April 5 or in the evening following the explosion.
The latest morning lightning strike on April 5 occurred at 10:09:42 a.m., some five hours prior to the explosion. No lightning strikes were recorded at or near 3:02 p.m., the approximate time of the explosion. Therefore, because there were no lightning strikes at or near the time of the explosion, it can be concluded that lightning did not have an effect on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that occurred on April 5.
Barometric pressure: The GIIP obtained information from the National Weather Service regarding the barometric pressure for April 5, 2010. Large and significant movement or changes in the barometric pressure have been linked to explosions in coal mines because significant drops of pressure can cause a spike in the amount of methane gas (CH4) liberated in a mine. At 11:00 a.m., the barometric pressure was 30.23. inches; at noon, 30.22; 1:00 p.m., 30.19; 2:00 p.m., 30.18; 3:00 p.m., 30.18, and 4:00 p.m., 30.16. The fact that the pressure dropped in slight increments, as the day progressed and the air heated up, is indicative of normal barometric pressure, and as such, can be ruled out as a contributing factor or a cause of the UBB explosion.
In order to obtain more information concerning an earthquake that occurred in the area on April 4, 2010, the investigation team contacted several individuals with the U.S. Geological Survey. Bruce Presgrave, the supervisory geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and National Earthquake Information Center, said an earthquake of magnitude 3.4 occurred 100 km away from the UBB coal mine. According to Presgrave, the earthquake was too small, it occurred too long before the explosion and was too far away in distance from UBB to have caused the explosion. He said, “My answer might have been different if 1) the explosion had happened shortly (within minutes, not a day) after the quake, and 2) if the quake had been felt strongly at the mine or in nearby towns.” Presgrave said that neither of these conditions was met.
Mike Kiblinger, outside (or outby) construction foreman, stood ten feet from the drift mouth at the Ellis punchout. “I could see it coming out,” he said, describing a brown dust that blew out of the mine.11 “It was blowing crib blocks out and just a real strong wind, like a hurricane. And a couple people blew out of the mines. You know, they were walking in just a little ways, and they got blew back out.”12
Kiblinger was pretty sure what the problem was. “I thought it was an explosion,” he said.13
Mine Superintendent Everett Hager was also standing near the mouth of the Ellis portal. He was overheard saying. “What the hell have they done now?’ Some miners believe the “they” Hager was referring to were UBB President Chris Blanchard, Vice President Jason Whitehead and Mine Manager Wayne Persinger.14
Roof bolter Tim Blake and his fellow crew members left the Tailgate 22 section at approximately 2:40 p.m.15 and were exiting the mine in a mantrip driven by James Woods. Blake sat in the right side in the front of the ride with Jason Atkins next to him and Carl Acord and Steve Harrah on the other side. On the back of the mantrip, Benny Willingham and Deward Scott were on one side; Robert Clark and William Lynch were on the other.16
Blake and Woods survived the explosion, although, with Woods sustaining life-threatening and in all likelihood life-altering injuries, Blake was the only one left to tell the story of what happened to the Tailgate 22 crew on April 5. As Woods called out for the road from 78 Break, it still seemed like just another day at the mines. Blake said he didn’t hear the call-out but was later told Woods called for the road at 2:58 p.m.17 The crew reached 66 break, when “everything just went black. It was like sitting in the middle of a hurricane, things flying, hitting you and stuff like that.”18 He said it wasn’t a gradual storm that built but a force that “just hit us all at once.”19
It all just took between one and three minutes, Blake said. “The boss’s methane detector, it went off. We was hollering – some of them was hollering, ‘Stop the trip’ and … my buddy beside of me said, ‘Let’s don our rescuers.’ And that’s what I done. I held my breath, put my rescuer on. And then it was just – nothing but just pure silence and stuff still flying by.”20
Shuttle car operator Roger Toney, who with his crew spent the day working on the construction project near the Ellis portal, was on his way out of the mine when he felt such intense pressure in his ears “that I thought they were about to bust.”21
“And instantly, you couldn’t see anything. It just – dust just blew overtop of us,” Toney said. “And there was a lot of debris in the dust. And even though I had my safety glasses on, dust just blew all in my eyes and … it got hard to breathe I guess because of all the dust.”22
Toney said the power went off on the mantrip. As it came to a stop, “everybody kind of ducked down in the seat because there was a lot of debris flying over the mantrip,” he said. “There’s signs all through the mines, and it sounded like every one of them came overtop of our mantrip. And we could hear – I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear big stuff hitting the mantrip… it sounded like cinderblocks and crib blocks and rocks…”23
“It was throwing blocks, foam,” Williams said. “That’s when I laid down on the mantrip and threw my jacket over my head and was starting to get my rescuer out because I didn’t know what in the world was going on.”24
Section foreman Bobby Baker’s gas detector went off, and Baker told the crew to get their rescuers ready because they were in high carbon monoxide, Toney said, adding that his understanding was that the detector showed 100 parts per million carbon monoxide and 19 percent oxygen.25 “So I popped mine open and put it on, but I didn’t activate it,” he said. “I held it close to my mouth, and I had my finger on the activation tag in case I needed it. As I was breathing, I kept thinking, if I get to where I can’t draw a breath, then I’ll pop it and put it in.”26
Joshua Williams, who was on the same mantrip, said his ears popped and he couldn’t hear anything. “And then that’s when we hit air. We just started pushing our mantrip back,” he said. “It blew our mantrip … probably about five breaks … but the guy got it turned around and started back to Ellis.”27
Toney said driver Jeremy Reed wrecked the mantrip in a curve that had two switches. “And I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, we’re not going to get out of here,” he said. “Well, the guy driving backs up, walks over the frog28 and gets back on the track. We go through the switch and he wrecks again. At this time a couple of guys jumped out and walked past the mantrip toward the outside. Well, he backs up over the frog, gets back on the track and the third time he gets through.”29
After what Toney estimated to be about 30 seconds “of an intense air coming through there, the power was restored”30 and the mantrip moved slowly toward Ellis Portal. Reed made it to a break or two from the outside, where he stopped behind two mantrips in front of him.31
Brent Racer, who operated a shuttle car for the second shift on Headgate 22, was just entering the mine. Racer and his crew had walked about three breaks underground and boarded a mantrip, where he sat down beside fellow buggyman Greg Crouse. The second shift longwall crew was in a mantrip in front of them.32
“We were waiting on the boss and the electrician,” Crouse said. “They were a little late getting to the mantrip. I guess that probably saved us a little.”33
Racer didn’t think much about it when the power went out. “That stuff happens all the time. Power goes out all the time. Breaker knocks.” He wasn’t too concerned because he could hear the belt running.34
But then Racer felt the air. “And it felt like sand picking up, you know, like at the beach, pinging you in the face when it starts blowing real hard. And you couldn’t hear the belt, and all of a sudden you heard this big roar, and that’s just when the air picked up. I’d say it was probably 60-some miles per hour. Instantly black. It took my hardhat and ripped it off my head, it was so powerful.”35
Crouse said, “Me and Racer decided we better get out of there, so we got up. We couldn’t see. Everybody else had already gone and gotten out. We couldn’t see, so we just turned backwards, you know, turned to where we knew where the portal was and just started feeling [along the rib] our way back toward the portal.”36
“All I could hear was Greg telling me, ‘… get up. You got to go. We got to get out,’” Racer said. “Well, I didn’t know where out was. My hardhat was off and my light was dangling. I couldn’t see nothing. I could feel him holding onto me and he’s like, come on. So we got out.”
“It broke my hardhat and took it and slung it up against the mantrip when I tried to put it back on. And it cracked it,” Racer said.37 He and Crouse were among the last men to come out of the mine alive, exiting with the second shift longwall crew.38
Safe on the outside, Racer watched as crib blocks and other materials blew out of the mine and he noted “a lot of black dust, you know, everywhere.”
As the men stood outside the portal stunned and shaken, someone suggested that there had been a roof fall, Racer said. He said veteran miner Stanley “Goose” Stewart dismissed that idea, saying, “Boys, I’ll tell you what. I’ve been in the mines a long time ... I don’t think that’s no fall … a fall is an instant … that lasted a couple of minutes.”39
Stewart, who also had been entering the mine, said someone asked him, “What do you think it was, Goose?” To which Stewart replied, “The place blew up.”40
“So then we started thinking for the worst,” Racer said, “and all of them haunting noises of the phones, the COs [alarms] going off, the belt bosses, all that stuff, all them beeping noises and stuff and no one answering the phones.”41
Racer said he sat at the phone to listen for an answer from inside the mine. “They couldn’t get ahold of Deano [Dean Jones, foreman on Headgate 22], nobody
on the crew … it’s like dead silence. No one was answering.”42
1 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 32
2 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 31
3 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 50
4 The information provided is based on alcohol/coke testing of residue left behind after the explosion and observation by members of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.
5 Location of bodies at shield no. 105
6 JNA computer on the Joy longwall equipment
7 During a post-explosion assessment by investigators of the longwall, a fire hose was observed lying in the stage loader conveyor area and stretching across part of the coal face
additional pieces of hose were found in a several places along the face. It could not be determined whether the hose was stretched out by the crew or blown there by the force of the explosion.
8 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 31
9 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 32
10 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 44
11 Michael Kiblinger testimony, p. 84
12 Michael Kiblinger testimony, p. 24
13 Michael Kiblinger testimony, p. 92
14 Investigators were unable to confirm with Everett Hager this event. Through his attorney, Hager invoked his Fifth Amendment right and declined to be interviewed by investigators. (See appendix for list of individuals who also invoke their Fifth Amendment right.)
15 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 40
16 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 47
17 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 49
18 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 40
19 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 40
20 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 41
21 Roger Toney testimony, p. 40
22 Roger Toney testimony, p. 41
23 Roger Toney testimony, p. 41
24 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 51
25 Both state and federal regulations require that mine air contain no less than 19.5% oxygen.
26 Roger Toney testimony, p. 44
27 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 51
28 “Frog” is a slang term for a section of rail that is part of a track switch and works as a divider that helps a vehicle go in the direction that the track switch is thrown. “Frogs” can become worn and frequently cause vehicles to jump the track.
29 Roger Toney testimony, p. 46
30 Roger Toney testimony, p. 43
31 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 52
32 Brent Racer testimony, p. 98
33 Gregory Crouse testimony, p. 87
34 Brent Racer testimony, p. 99
35 Brent Racer testimony, p. 99
36 Gregory Crouse testimony, p. 85
37 Brent Racer testimony, p. 100
38 Brent Racer testimony, p. 101
39 Brent Racer testimony, p. 101
40 Stanley Stewart testimony, June 5, 2010, p. 201
41 Brent Racer testimony, p. 101
42 Brent Racer testimony, p. 102