NTTC Logo - Return to homepage 

Chapter 5

The long days of rescue and recovery

In the long days and nights that followed the terrible afternoon of April 5, 2010, questions were raised about when the rescue became a recovery effort; whether standard mine rescue protocol was followed; whether company officials remained underground in violation of that protocol; whether the lives of rescuers were unnecessarily put at risk; whether family members were given false hope.

But throughout the long and arduous rescue and recovery effort, no one questioned the courage of company, federal and state rescue team members. These rescuers, nearly all of them volunteers, began to assemble at Upper Big Branch in the hours after the explosion to do what they do so well – descend into a mine where there is great destruction and where the atmosphere is both dangerous and unstable to search for and attempt to rescue men and women they may not know in settings with which they are not familiar.

The risks are huge. In the United States alone, the history of mining and rescue efforts is filled with examples of rescuers being overcome by toxic gases or killed as a result of a second or third explosion. In 1907, two rescuers were overcome by deadly fumes after the Monongah disaster; 13 were killed in an effort to locate trapped miners after the 1976 Scotia Mine explosion; 12 more died in 2001 in the Jim Walters mine trying to save the life of one miner; and three were killed at Crandall Canyon in 2007 as they attempted to save six miners.

Every time rescue teams are deployed, officials in command centers must balance the risks of rescuers’ lives against the lives of the trapped miners. Historically, and according to accepted protocol, after a determination has been made that all the miners within the coal mine are deceased, the initial sense of urgency changes. The effort turns from one of rescue to one of recovery, and the calculation of risk shifts in the direction of more protection for mine rescue team members. As a matter of practice, rescue team members do not remove the bodies of deceased miners until the determination has been made that there are no survivors. Ordinary recovery procedure calls for the mine to be completely inspected by teams under apparatus if necessary prior to removing the bodies. But the explosion at Upper Big Branch posed additional difficult choices for decisionmakers not only because of the large number of victims, but because, for the first time following an explosion, officials knew of the presence of safe chambers, which, if activated, could have allowed miners to survive for days after the explosion.

The first mine rescue personnel on the scene at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5 were Rob Asbury and Mark Bolen, members of Massey Energy’s Southern West Virginia Mine Rescue Team. Asbury and Bolen arrived at UBB at about 3:30 p.m., followed a short time later by team members Jim Aurednik and Shane McPherson.

Asbury and Aurednik went underground first, where they encountered the mantrip with the Tailgate 22 crew as it was coming out of the mine. They assisted with the victims as they were brought out of the mine. Asbury, Aurednik and Bolen then went underground and began to repair telephone lines to establish communication. McPherson was asked to identify bodies of the first crew members that had been brought out of the mine, but he was not able to do so.1

McPherson said after his unsuccessful attempts to make identifications, he prepared to go into the mine, grabbing a first aid kit and some supplies. “And I gave my apparatus to a guy named Clinton Craddock at the time to ready my apparatus for me. I grabbed a couple other guys to get a mantrip ready for me,” he said. “And in between all that, talking with Wayne [Persinger], Elizabeth [Chamberlin] and anybody that could tell me any information, I gathered all the information that I could,” he said.

All the information in the world could not have prepared McPherson for what he saw as he entered the mine. “It’s basically disbelief and half shock, I would think, to what we were seeing, but at the same time trying to locate those guys,” he said.2

Mine Rescue and Recovery Quandary

The decision of the Upper Big Branch Command Center to send large numbers of mine rescue teams underground to recover the bodies, despite the fact that the entire mine had not been inspected by rescue team members and all possible ignition sources had not been determined to be extinguished, and more significantly the lack of adequate back-up teams, was a departure from mine rescue protocol. By proceeding in this manner, the Command Center decided that if the recovery of the victims’ bodies was accomplished quickly (i.e., with as many mine rescuers underground as possible) the overall risk would be lower than the standard, more methodical approach. Their decision was further complicated by the fact that victims were spread over such a large area. During this “quick” approach, there was one large movement of air in the Headgate 22 section. Investigators were unable to determine what caused the event. Although there were no injuries or deaths, the potential existed for disastrous consequences. There were large numbers of mine rescue teams underground, but they were not backed up by an equal number of teams on the surface.

One major coal company, CONSOL Energy, deemed the risk to their mine rescue team members unacceptable because a safer alternative recovery scheme was available. This plan would have included a complete preshift examination,1 which would have ensured that all possible ignition sources were extinguished prior to entry and adequate backup teams made available. Although this plan would have taken longer and the recovery of the victims’ bodies could have been significantly delayed, the mine rescue teams would have been in a much less precarious situation. The Command Center decided to forego standard mine rescue protocols – procedures designed to safeguard the lives of rescue team members – in an effort to remove the bodies more expeditiously. The decision scales were tipped toward speed, not security and safety.

This issue needs to be carefully examined by the mine rescue community and new technology developed which provide improved information upon which to make judgments affecting the lives of mine rescuers.

1 That the post-explosion conditions in UBB were hazardous and unstable is suggested by the fact that investigators could not begin the underground portion of their work until June 29, 2010, after the mine had been fully examined and serious hazards corrected.

At 4:15 p.m., MSHA Field Office Supervisor Fred Wills had left his Mount Carbon office and was on the way home when he received a call relaying a message from Link Selfe, the assistant district manager for enforcement programs in Mount Hope.3 Instead of continuing home, Wills drove to Mount Hope, where he learned about the explosion that had occurred, that Selfe had already left for UBB and that he wanted Wills to report to the mine.4

Wills estimated his own arrival at UBB at around 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. “I was there, Link Selfe was there. I think Mr. [Kevin] Stricklin was there. I think we all got there just about the same time. Once I arrived at the mines, I had only been there about 25 minutes or 20 minutes, and Link had said I was going to go underground.”5

Wills said he thought he was sent underground because he was an experienced mine rescue captain and trainer.6 Sharing a mantrip with Wills were MSHA mine rescue team members Mike Hicks and Jerry Cook. Hicks, field office supervisor at the Mount Hope office, and Cook, supervisor of the Pineville field office, had met at the federal Mine Academy in Beckley and traveled together to UBB. Hicks estimated they arrived at the mine at about 6:00 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. with their mine rescue apparatus.7

Cook said before he and Hicks entered the mine, Hardman briefed them on the situation underground and told them nine miners were either dead or had been rescued and 19 remained missing. Cook said he was led to believe nine miners were on Headgate 22 and six were on the longwall. Hicks and Cook proceeded into the mine with apparatus and a multiple gas detector. Hicks later donned his apparatus, while Cook did not.8

By the time the first full rescue teams were preparing to enter the mine, state teams had arrived at UBB. Eugene White, inspector-at-large for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training’s Region 3 in Danville and a member of the State’s South Mine Rescue Team, had been engaged in training activities in Logan.9

White had stopped at a store to purchase equipment when he received a call from one of his assistants who “said that my aunt had called him,” White recalled. “She lives on Route 3, just a couple of miles from the mines. She … wanted him to get ahold of me to let me know that something bad was going on, that the rumor was there had been a massive roof fall and there was some people missing.”10

White caught up with other members of the team and was told they were no longer involved in a training exercise – they were on call and moving. “I knew exactly where the mine was because it’s not too far from my home,” White said. “So I proceeded immediately from Logan … at a fairly fast rate of speed to UBB. A lot of emergency vehicles were passing me, ambulances, rescue guys.”11

When White arrived at UBB, he was briefed by Wayne Wingrove and White’s assistant, Johnny Kinder. “That’s when I realized then how bad it was,” White said. “I walked up to one of the firemen that I knew. He was the incident commander for the rescue people. He’s the one that informed me … that there were seven bodies already had been brought out of the mines, and they had them covered over with mine curtain.”12

White called for security to make sure that, with so many people walking around, the bodies were protected and treated with respect. He and his crew began getting themselves and their equipment ready to go underground.

“At some point I walked down into the UBB shop and … two Massey teams were getting prepared to go underground. They were briefing them. And I realized that we didn’t have any state team members ready with them, so we went and got a couple of our state guys to travel with them,” White said.13

The Massey teams entered first, and the two state teams – North and South –prepared to follow. Massey Energy’s Chris Adkins briefed them, White said, and Selfe was there from MSHA, as well.14

At that time, rescue teams held on to hope that survivors had somehow made their way to rescue chambers and were waiting for help to come. “And our objective was to try to search the coal mine, find those persons and hopefully bring them to the surface,” White said. “So once they briefed us, immediately we were prepared to go underground. We traveled as two State teams. There was no company representatives or MSHA with our two teams as we proceeded underground.”15

The mantrip carrying MSHA’s Wills, Hicks and Cook proceeded to the fresh air base at 78 Break, where, to Hicks’ surprise, they ran into Performance Coal Company president Chris Blanchard. “We were trying to find out why he was there because … as far as I know, he’s not a mine rescue member,” Hicks said. “And then while we’re sitting there talking to him, he’s talking on the phone. Then Jason Whitehead [at the time the vice president of Performance Coal] comes up from up in here somewhere, and then there was a couple of the Massey team members come up in there, and none of them had their machines on them.”16

Hicks and Cook both said they saw two apparatuses at the fresh air base. The equipment did not belong to Blanchard and Whitehead, but to two other Massey team members who came and got them later.17

Normally, when mine rescue teams are briefed, part of the briefing process involves telling the team members about everyone who is underground. Since he had not been told the Massey officials were in the mine, Hicks said it “was a total shock when I found Blanchard and Jason Whitehead.”18

Wills, too, was surprised to learn that Blanchard and Whitehead were underground. “I thought we were the first people going underground,” he said. “I thought the mines was evacuated.”19

Wills said Blanchard told him that he and Whitehead had traveled toward the longwall on the headgate and tailgate, looking for survivors. “They didn’t go into particulars exactly where they went to, because I don’t think they wanted me to know,” he said.20 MSHA’s Command Center notes indicate Blanchard and Whitehead reported encountering high carbon monoxide levels on the tail side of the longwall. They also saw victims on the longwall track, who were later identified as Cory Davis, Timmy Davis, Adam Morgan and Joshua Napper. It was not clear to investigators why the information contained in the Command Center notes was not shared with Wills, Hicks or other underground rescue team members.

Blanchard told those gathered at the fresh air base at 78 break that the Command Center wanted them to split up. Half the teams would go toward the longwall and half toward Headgate 22, where they suspected they would locate the missing miners, Hicks said. Both Hicks and Cook said they spoke with Blanchard, explaining their hesitation to send teams deeper into a mine that had just exploded without backup team members in place. “We didn’t even know who was inby the fresh air base,” Hicks said.21

Wills explained that general mine rescue protocol is that for every active mine rescue team inby the fresh air base, “you should have an equal number outby in case one of the teams runs into trouble.”22

While the debate continued, Cook took his team and traveled to the longwall. Hicks kept six people with him at the fresh air base to back up Cook’s team. Hicks said he was told the Command Center wanted him to take his team up to Headgate 22. “I told them, ‘We can’t do that. We don’t have any backup,’” he said.23

After getting off the phone with Chris Adkins in the Command Center, Jason Whitehead told Hicks that Hicks “had been overruled and that we were to go,” that there was a backup team on the way. “I said, ‘Well, they’re not here,’” Hicks replied. “So I got on the phone and I talked to Chris Adkins.”24

Adkins dismissed the concerns articulated by Hicks and Cook about insufficient backup, saying, “We need to find 16 men, not play mine rescue.”25 The failure to follow established mine rescue protocol and insist on one-to-one backup strongly suggests that the command center was negligent in its duty to protect mine rescue personnel.

“You know, it’s bad enough trying to find 29 people,” Cook said. “You don’t need to have 40 more to look for…They just had a major explosion. They could’ve, they could’ve killed every one of us … We were expendable that night, that’s my opinion … they didn’t care what they did with us. That’s my opinion.”26

Hicks said Adkins told him, “We have to hurry.” Hicks said he refused to go until he spoke with Hardman, his district manager. Hardman, he said, “basically told me the same thing, ‘We have to hurry.’”

Hicks related this conversation with Hardman:

Hicks: “Bob, I don’t have people to back these people up,”

Hardman: “Well, they’re up there without machines on anyway, so they’re not under air anyway. You got your teams coming.”

Hicks: “Bob, I don’t have teams here.’”

Hardman: “We have to go.”

Hicks followed orders and proceeded to Head gate 22.27

It should be noted that when Cook and Hicks reported to UBB the following day, Tuesday, April 6, they were told they would not be allowed to work together, that they would be assigned to different shifts and that they would not be allowed to go underground.28 Demoralized and upset, the two veteran mine rescuers29 pressed for an explanation from MSHA mine rescue team trainer Virgil Brown. They said Brown told them they had been through enough in the mine.

“I thought that was a lot of bull. I’m a mine rescue person. That’s what I do,” said Cook, who had been involved in rescue efforts at Sago, Aracoma and Crandall Canyon. “And I just never did believe that was the reason why we didn’t go back underground. I think because we run our mouth [expressing opposition to the command center’s decision to go forward without one-toone backup], and we done what we did when we was in there.”30

Eugene White said the state teams started underground sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. When he arrived at the fresh air base, White said he saw Whitehead, Blanchard and Wills.31

Wills worked with Whitehead, Blanchard and four mine rescue teams to set up a new fresh air base at 106 Break on the North 6 belt. He said once they got communications established to that point, they could go no further. “The gas levels were too high inby us,” he said.32

White said his team was instructed to go to a crossover panel in front of the longwall face line from the headgate to the tailgate. Since he was in charge of the West Virginia South team, White instructed the state North team to stay at the fresh air base to serve as backup.

“Chris Blanchard, who knows the mine… elected to go with us,” White said. “He did not have an apparatus.” Because they weren’t picking up any CO or methane, the team took Blanchard because none of them had been in the mine before.33

As Jerry Cook traveled with his team to the longwall, his eye was drawn to reflective materials. He and another rescue team member followed the reflected light and found three victims near a bolter located in a crosscut between the Two and Three entries.

“And we walked around it, and we had one victim was laying in front of the bolter, between the track and the bolter,” Cook said. He wrote down the number of the tracking device worn by the miner to help with identification. “And we had one guy on the end of – laying across the track, and one guy in between the track entry and the belt entry, laying on some gob, laying on his back. And on his shirt he had the … name “Tim” wrote on it. We checked the victim on the track and we found his ID tag, and his name was Josh Napper, I believe what it was.”34

Cook then looked outby the track entry, once more saw reflective material and located a fourth victim a break outby from where the other victims had been found. He could find no identification on this man.

After they found the four victims [later identified as Cory Davis, Timmy Davis Adam Morgan and Joshua Napper], Cook said his team traveled up the track entry, where he observed two or three self-rescuers that had been deployed “after the fact, after the event, because they had no soot, nothing on them. They were fresh,” he said.

“And then I looked down. I seen tracks in the rock dust over the – where the soot had got overtop the rock dust and they – you could tell somebody had walked through there, fresh. Having not been told anyone had been in that area, Cook “had to assume that we might’ve had somebody survive this, so I started looking for a survivor.” Cook did not learn that Blanchard and Whitehead most likely had created the tracks until his debriefing after he exited the mine.35

Eugene White also saw tracks as his team completed an exploration toward Headgate One North and came back toward Tailgate One North. Blanchard, who was with White’s team, told White that he and Whitehead had already traveled that entry prior to rescue teams entering the mine. Massey mine rescue team member Jim Aurednik saw footprints, too, but he said, “I pretty much knew that Jason [Whitehead] and Chris [Blanchard] were there and all the tracks going in belonged to them.”36

At about 10:00 p.m., Jason Whitehead reported to the Command Center that a single victim had been found inby the mother drive [later identified as Michael Elswick]. His self-contained self-rescuer was on his belt and had not been activated.

MSHA’s Jerry Cook continued to follow the tracks until State Inspector Danny Cook called out that he had located yet another victim. “He was hard to see because he was so black, but he was lying in the stage loader area,” Jerry Cook recalled. “His boots were blowed off his feet. I can’t remember if he had – I don’t think he had his hard hat on at that time.”3 He doesn’t think the victim was identified that night [later identified as Rex Mullins].

Cook said Massey team members Rob Asbury and Shane McPherson radioed to say they had discovered two more bodies at Shield 85 [later identified as Richard Lane and Grover Skeens] “that were blowed up underneath the pan line.” Asbury and McPherson then reported locating four more victims [later identified as Christopher Bell, Dillard Persinger, Joel Price and Gary Quarles] between Shields 102 and 105 or 106.38

McPherson recognized one of them as a good friend of his. “I think his name was Spanky or they called him Spanky,” Cook said. “… his last name was Quarles.”39

Once they found the four, McPherson said he went up to the longwall face with Asbury and Cook, where they found the body of headgate operator Rex Mullins. “Rob and I started down the face, and that’s when we just started, you know, finding some of the bodies.”40

The teams were unable to locate one victim who was lying by the stage loader [later identified as Nicolas McCroskey]. “We was right there at him,” Cook said. “We just never did see him. I mean, we looked and we never did see the victim. And he was the – I think he was the last victim out of all of them that was found.”41

White couldn’t pinpoint the time, but, as his team was preparing to move the fresh air base further into the mine, they got a call to exit as soon as possible. One of the teams had detected an explosive range of methane.42

It was Hicks’ team, traveling on Headgate 22. The team had located a body, and, then, as they traveled further into the Headgate, they encountered heavy smoke, methane and carbon monoxide.43 Wills recalled that “the CO was 8,000 parts per million; methane was maybe over 8 percent and the oxygen level was down about 3.2 percent.”44,45

By that time, rescuers had located the bodies of 25 victims, including the seven brought out in the immediate aftermath of the blast. Rescue efforts were suspended46 and the crews arrived on the surface sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning, April 6.47 Rescuers did not return underground until 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, after which they engaged in a pattern of entering the mine only to have to withdraw because of potentially explosive air conditions. On the surface, Massey started to drill boreholes in an attempt to clear the air in the mine and make it safe for rescuers.48

Eugene White returned underground in the early morning of Thursday, April 8, and traveled with Massey’s Southern West Virginia Team, captained by Rob Asbury. “As a matter of fact, from that day on, every time I went in the coal mines, I traveled with that team,” White said.49 By then, bodies of all but four of the miners had been located.

On this trip into the mine, as they passed the four bodies in the headgate entry to the longwall (later identified as Cory Davis, Timmy Davis, Adam Morgan and Josh Napper), the rescue team members covered them with brattice cloth because “it is more respectful to the victims.”50

The rescue teams were instructed to evacuate the mine later that Thursday morning – White remembers it as after sunrise when he arrived on the surface. Teams went back underground on Friday, according to Command Center notes, but were pulled out a short time later because of dangerous conditions. They returned underground at 4:00 p.m. on Friday.

Eugene White and his team traveled to 22 Headgate, where it was already known that six victims were on a mantrip [later identified as Kenneth Chapman, William “Bob” Griffith, Ronald Maynor, James “Eddie” Mooney, Howard “Boone” Payne and Ricky Workman]. Three of the missing miners were also members of the Headgate 22 crew [later identified as Gregory Brock, Edward Dean Jones and Joe Marcum].51

As they approached the mantrip, White offered this description, “The best of my recollection, the mantrip was on the track. There was two victims in the outby end, facing the outside,” White said. “One’s leg was hangin’ out of the trip. On the inby side, the … top canopy of the mantrip had kind of collapsed down and had --- there was four victims in that end of the mantrip.”52

As the team proceeded up the track, they located another victim in the middle of the entry “like he’s walking outby toward the mantrip.”53 They went a couple more breaks and found another victim. “He, from what I understand now, was the section foreman,” White said, referring to Dean Jones. “It appears to me, with my background and my knowledge of coal mining, that these guys are --- end of the shift, are going toward the mantrip.”54

With three of the four missing miners accounted for, and running low on oxygen, the teams began to withdraw from the mine. Another team made a run to the longwall face but was unable to find the last missing man.55

“They holler out that they can’t find them,” White said. Then as the teams worked their way out, they found a fourth body near the gate shields at the mouth of the longwall [later identified as Nicolas McCroskey]. “Several people had probably went by this individual,” White said.56

The team marked the position and locations of bodies, placed them in body bags and left them by the longwall track. They returned to the longwall starter box area, and did the same thing with the victims that had been located there.

At approximately 11:35 p.m. on that Friday night, April 9, Don Blankenship, Chris Adkins, Governor Joe Manchin, MSHA chief Joe Main, Kevin Stricklin and other officials returned to the Safety Department building to deliver the sad news to the family members that the entire mine had been explored, that all the miners had been accounted for and that there were no survivors. MSHA’s family liaison notes indicated that briefing broke down for 20 to 25 minutes.

The removal of bodies from deep underground in a mine that lacked both power and mobile transportation units was a daunting task. The virtually impassable roadways at UBB made recovery efforts much more difficult. Thick, dense coal dust and soot hindered travel and rendered cap lights nearly useless. As they attempted to maneuver through the debris-filled mine, rescuers had the additional burden of wearing heavy breathing apparatus and carrying supplies, including water, phones and equipment.

The process of removing the remaining 22 victims from the mine began on Saturday, April 10. A large group of rescuers – as many as 100 men – formed a human chain. Each two-man team carried the victims to another two-man team, who would then carry the victim to another team until the body reached a mantrip that competed the journey to the surface of the mine. It was a grueling, dangerous and time-consuming process that continued into the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 13.

By the time Eugene White returned to UBB on Monday evening, only the final nine bodies57– those of the Headgate 22 crew – remained in the mine. As Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, these last victims were physically carried from the section, solemnly transferred from mine rescue team to mine rescue team and then onto mantrips. After more than a week, the members of the Headgate 22 crew emerged for the last time from the blackness of the Upper Big Branch mine, their bodies draped by American flags.58

1 Shane McPherson testimony, p. 24
2 Shane McPherson testimony, p. 29
3 Fred Wills testimony, p. 21
4 Fred Wills testimony, p. 21
5 Fred Wills testimony, p. 24
6 Fred Wills testimony, p. 36
7 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 38
8 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 39, Jerry Cook testimony, p. 17
9 Eugene White testimony, p. 12
10 Eugene White testimony, p. 12
11 Eugene White testimony, p. 13
12 Eugene White testimony, p. 15
13 Eugene White testimony, p. 16
14 Eugene White testimony, p. 17
15 Eugene White testimony, p. 18
16 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 47
17 Mike Hicks testimony, p 70, Jerry Cook testimony, p. 25
18 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 69
19 Fred Wills testimony, p. 43
20 Fred Wills testimony, p. 27
21 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 48
22 Fred Wills testimony, p. 38
23 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 49
24 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 49
25 MSHA Command Center notes
26 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 74
27 Mike Hicks testimony, p. 49
28 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 64
29 Hicks had seven years experience with MSHA mine rescue, Cook had 12.5 years experience.
30 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 74
31 Eugene White testimony, p 25
32 Fred Wills testimony, p. 37
33 Eugene White testimony, p. 27
34 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 33
35 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 56
36 Jim Aurednik testimony, p. 38
37 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 40
38 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 40
39 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 40
40 Shane McPherson testimony, p. 33
41 Jerry Cook testimony, p. 42
42 Eugene White testimony, p. 35
43 Briefing by Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration on Disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine-South, at the request of President Barack Obama, April 15, 2010.
44 Fred Wills testimony, p. 33
45 1% methane is the maximum allowed by law in a mine’s atmosphere. At 1.5%, methane is highly explosive in air containing coal dust or other explosive gases. Methane alone is highly explosive at levels between 5% and 15% of the atmosphere. The most explosive mixture is when methane is at 9.5%. The law requires that mine air contain no less than 19.5% oxygen. Carbon monoxide, or CO, is toxic at 50 parts per million.
46 Briefing by Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration on Disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine-South, at the request of President Barack Obama, April 15, 2010.
47 Eugene White testimony, p. 36
48 Briefing by Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration on Disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine-South, at the request of President Barack Obama, April 15, 2010.
49 Eugene White testimony, p. 43
50 Eugene White testimony, p. 51
51 Eugene White testimony, p. 62
52 Eugene White testimony, p. 62
53 Eugene White testimony, p. 64
54 Eugene White testimony, p. 65
55 Eugene White testimony, p. 67
56 Eugene White testimony, p. 68
57 Eugene White testimony, p. 70
58 Eugene White testimony, p. 72

Chambers, communication and tracking systems

“We banged and banged and banged, everyone did,” was how Sago mine survivor Randal McCloy, Jr.,described what his 11 crew members did on January 2, 2006, after they barricaded themselves in the coal mine.1 After the early morning explosion, the 12 man crew tried to escape, but retreated as far as possible from the smoke and fumes to await rescue. The mine phone underground had been destroyed in the blast. They had no way to let crews on the surface know that all but one of them were alive – except for using the sledgehammer. McCloy and his coworkers used it to bang and bang as hard as they could on the roof bolts, in hopes that rescuers on the surface would hear them. Ten hours passed and eventually 11 of the men, all but McCloy, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

Just a month later, the Sago miners’ families learned that 72 potash miners in Saskatchewan, Canada, had escaped a mine fire and were awaiting rescue in a refuge chamber. Not only were the miners in a safe place, they were in contact with rescuers on the surface. The Sago families also learned that wireless tracking systems were commercially available and some mine operators were using them.

After Elvis Hatfield and Donald Bragg tried to escape the January 19, 2006 fire in Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma mine, but got disoriented in the black dust and smoke, MSHA took emergency action to require operators to install fire-resistant lifelines in escapeways. Lifelines were already general practice in a number of other countries.

Less than a month after the Sago disaster, the WV legislature passed a law requiring, among other things, new standards for communication, tracking and refuge chambers.2 Underground coal mine operators were required to have a plan, no later than April 15, 2007, to provide safe shelters for miners, and a plan for communication and tracking no later than July 31, 2007. There were no deadlines, however, for the actual installation and full operation of these improvements. Operators simply had to have a plan. The U.S. Congress also responded by passing the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER Act) which was signed into law by President G.W. Bush on June 15, 2006.3 It mandated post-emergency communication and tracking and a study by NIOSH on practicalities of refuge chambers for use in underground coal mines. Ultimately, refuge chambers of various types were required to be in place by March 2009 and located generally within 1,000 feet from the nearest working face.4

On April 5 at the Upper Big Branch mine, safe shelters manufactured by Strata were located within 1,000 feet of the longwall, HG22 and TG22 faces. These particular shelters are designed to be deployed by a miner in case of emergency through a rapid inflation process. Investigators found the shelter located near the longwall to be moved a few feet by the force of the explosion, but otherwise deployed as designed when tested underground by investigators. The safe shelter near the HG22 section showed signs of heating and coked coal dust on the top of the door edge. It deployed as designed when investigators tested it. The TG22 safe shelter show no significant external damage and also inflated when investigators tested it. Regrettably, the force of the explosion caused fatal injuries to the 29 miners deep in the mine. None were able to make it to the safe shelters.

The MINER Act set a deadline of June 2009 for underground coal mine operators to have functioning wireless communication and tracking systems. In contrast to the provisions adopted by the State of West Virginia, MSHA expects operators to provide coverage throughout each working section in a mine.

The most recent data available from MSHA indicates that only 36 percent of the 535 active underground coal mines nationwide have fully installed communication and tracking systems. The tracking system at UBB was only about 20 percent installed on April 5,5 but the mine was not considered out of compliance by MSHA. The federal law gave MSHA the discretion to allow mine operators to provide an alternative system if he “sets forth the reasons such provisions can not be adopted.”6 In a December 2010 Procedure Instruction Letter (PIL) to mine operators, MSHA indicated that a sufficient number of approved communication and tracking systems are commercially available and it expects mine operators to comply by June 15, 2011, with the requirement.7 MSHA’s PIL did not indicate whether citations and penalties will be assessed against operators who fail to meet the June 15, 2011, deadline.

1 McAteer & Associates, “The Sago Mine Disaster: a preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III,” July 2006
2 West Virginia Senate Bill 247, enacted January 27, 2006
3 Public Law 109-236
4 75 Code of Federal Regulations §1506, Refuge Alternatives
5 Derrick Kiblinger testimony, June 9, 2010
6 Public Law 109-236
7 MSHA, Program Instruction Letter No. I10-V-19, December 14, 2010; a Program Policy Letter issued by MSHA on April 28, 2011 (PPL-11-V-13) updates MSHA’s position stating: “fully wireless communications technology is not sufficiently developed at this time to permit use throughout the industry.” This suggests the agency will continue to allow mine operators to use “acceptable alternatives to fully wireless communication systems.”

Back to Table of Conents