“A good guy.” That was the way a lot of people described 33-year-old Gary Wayne Quarles. His father, also named Gary, called his soft-spoken son his best friend.1 The younger Quarles’s friend, Michael Ferrell, said Quarles was like a brother to him – the kind of person who offered to help out financially when he thought a buddy was up against hard times.2
A big man, standing 6 feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, Quarles was the tail side shearer operator on the longwall of the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy, in Raleigh County, West Virginia.3 It was one of the toughest jobs in the mine, and, because Quarles did it so well,4 his co-workers might have been surprised to learn that the man they called Spanky was scared, that he dreaded going to work in the mornings.
In early April 2010, Quarles had a lot on his mind. His divorce had become final a couple of months before, and he was concerned about his two young children, a daughter, 9, and a son, 11.5 Mostly, though, his friends said he was worried about conditions at UBB.
During Easter weekend,6 Quarles shared a meal with Jason Gautier and Nicolas McCroskey at the Hooters Restaurant in Beckley. McCroskey, like Quarles, worked at UBB; Gautier, who had been a production foreman at UBB, had left Massey to take a job with ICG in September 2009.8 As the men ate, Quarles and McCroskey talked about Upper Big Branch, telling Gautier “something bad was going to happen.”9 Gautier said McCroskey was “up and coming”10 at the mine, but Quarles, like most of the dayshift longwall crew, was an experienced and highly skilled miner.
Spanky Quarles had worked underground for 14 years, starting when he was just 18 years old. He had spent the last eight of those years working on the longwall, his father said.11 Gary Quarles said his son liked working at UBB when he first went there.
At some point, things changed. Massey moved the longwall to another mine operation, Logan’s Fork, and Gary Quarles said his son told him, “Dad, that place is terrible.” Then, when the younger Quarles came back to UBB, he told his father he was distressed to find that “this [UBB] … is a whole lot worse.”12
On Easter Sunday – April 4, 2010 – the Upper Big Branch mine stood idle. Massey had given workers the day off and most of them spent the time with those they loved – eating Sunday dinner, attending church services, engaging in outdoor activities.
Gary Wayne Quarles, still stewing about the conditions at the mine, drove back and forth past Michael Ferrell’s home, as if he were pacing. Ferrell, who was cutting weeds, saw Quarles pass by and knew him well enough to know that his friend had something on his mind. Ferrell also knew that Quarles wouldn’t want to keep him from his work.13
“I knowed him all my life,” Ferrell said. “And I mean, his kids was like my kids. And when you’re around somebody enough, you kind of know something is wrong. I knowed he didn’t want to come over there and make me stop, so I just acted like I was going to take a water break because I knowed what kind of guy he was.”14
Quarles was aware that Ferrell had recently left UBB. Ferrell maintains that he was fired after he reported safety concerns to a state mining inspector. Quarles, Ferrell said, asked if “I was working or if I needed money or anything like that.” Ferrell told Quarles he was fine, that he had a job at Patriot Coal.15
“And he said, ‘Man, I wish I had a good job like you’re talking about,’” Ferrell said. He told Quarles he would put in a good word for him at Patriot, that there might be a job for Quarles there.16
Ferrell recalled the following exchange:
Ferrell: “Well, what’s the matter, Gary?”
Quarles: “Man, I’m just scared to go back to work.”
Ferrell: “What do you mean scared, Gary? What’s going on?”
Quarles: “Man, they got us up there see nothing. Every day, I just thank God when I get out of that coal mines that I ain’t got to be here no more. I just don’t want to go back. When I get up in the mornings, I don’t want to put my shoes on. I don’t want to make myself go to work. I’m just scared to death to go to work because I’m just scared to death something bad is going to happen.”17
“Something bad is going to happen,” Gary Wayne Quarles told at least three people during the Easter weekend, as if he had a deep and abiding premonition about the Upper Big Branch mine. Evidence suggests that, during Easter weekend, as Quarles was giving voice to his fears, trouble was brewing at the mine. Maintenance Superintendent Paul Thompson testified that pumps removing water from the longwall headgate and tailgate had failed during the weekend.18 Thompson later changed that testimony, but miners returning to UBB on Easter Monday found high water had filled the entries and impeded the flow of air.19 Without air drawing across the gob to flush out methane – which occurs naturally in underground coal mines – the deadly gas could build up behind the longwall.
Ventilation was not a new problem at Upper Big Branch, a sprawling drift mine with approximately 2.7 miles of active underground works, located at Montcoal in Raleigh County. The company had experienced problems with airflow since the longwall was returned to UBB from the Logan’s Fork mine in September 2009.
One supervisor said that the air reversed “on the longwall face just real regular,” a problem he attributed to the mine filling up with water and roofing out. Brian “Hammer” Collins, the second shift foreman on the Tailgate 22 section, said the 22 Headgate section “constantly had air problems.”20 Joshua Massey, a roof bolter on the Headgate 22 swing shift crew said, “There wasn’t no air. It’s hard to ventilate a place when you ain’t got nothing to ventilate it with.”21 Stanley “Goose” Stewart, who worked in the mines for 34 years, 15 of them at UBB, testified at a congressional hearing that UBB was “a ticking time bomb” because “the ventilation system they had didn’t work.”22
Top-level management officials at Performance Coal – the Massey subsidiary that ran UBB – continued to tinker with the air, stealing it from one mining section to ventilate another. But nothing seemed to take care of the problem. Shuttle car operator Bobbie Pauley, who worked the Saturday evening shift before the Easter break, said her crew “didn’t have any air” on Headgate 22 that night. “I won’t say suffocating,” she said in describing conditions on the Headgate. “But it was hot.” Pauley said she overheard miner James Griffith tell foreman Brandon Bowling, “You’re going to have to get me some air up here. There’s no air up here, Brandon.”23
The lack of air wasn’t the only chronic problem at UBB. Some veteran miners, including Charles Semenske24 and Timothy Blake, testified about what they felt was inadequate rock-dusting at the mine.25 Tests conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Mines as early as 1908 proved that, contrary to previously held beliefs, coal dust is highly explosive. The tests also demonstrated that the explosive nature of the dust can be rendered inert by the application of rock dust, which is pulverized limestone rock. A number of witnesses attributed the inadequate rock dusting at UBB to the fact that a two-man crew was responsible for rock dusting the entire mine on a part-time basis; others pointed out that the dusting equipment at the mine was both outdated and poorly maintained. Tests conducted after the disaster confirmed that the company failed to meet state and federal standards for rock dusting.
As miners returned to work on April 5, some of them observed that the air was reversed in the mine. Others commented on the lack of airflow in some parts of the mine. It was hot in there, miserably hot, one said.26 A perfect storm was brewing inside the Upper Big Branch mine – insufficient air, a build-up of methane and enough coal dust to carry an explosion long distances through the mine. All that was needed was a spark.
It came just after 3 p.m., as the day shift was completing work and the second shift was entering the mine, resulting in a massive and violent explosion that tore through Upper Big Branch.
Based on evidence gathered at the mine and testimony offered by those who were familiar with practices and conditions at Upper Big Branch, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel has concluded that the ignition point for the blast was the tail of the longwall. As the shearer cut into the sandstone mine roof, the resulting sparks ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball. The fireball in turn ignited the methane that had accumulated in the gob during the Easter weekend and leaked onto the longwall face. The fireball traveled into the tailgate area, where accumulations of coal dust provided fuel for a second, more deadly, force. This dust-fueled blast ricocheted in multiple directions, traveling across the longwall face, into the tailgate entry, and through more than two miles of the mine.
Twenty-nine men were killed in the blast, including Spanky Quarles, Nicolas McCroskey and the rest of the longwall dayshift crew, making it the most deadly coal mining disaster in the United States in 40 years.
1 Gary Quarles before Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Tragedy, May 24, 2010, Beckley, WV
2 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 83
3 Gary Quarles testimony, p. 18
4 Michael Ferrell and Jason Gautier testified as to the ability of Gary Wayne Quarles.
6 Jason Gautier recalls the dinner was on Good Friday; Gary Quarles said his son met with the other miners on Saturday.
7 Jason Gautier testimony, p. 12
8 Jason Gautier testimony, p. 30
9 Jason Gautier testimony, p. 33
10 Gary Quarles before Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Tragedy, May 24, 2010, Beckley, WV
11 Gary Quarles testimony, p. 27
12 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 84
13 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 83
14 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 84
15 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 84
16 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 85
17 Michael Ferrell testimony, p. 85
18 Paul Thompson testimony, p. 16
19 This is referred to as “roofing out.”
20 Brian Collins testimony, p. 52
21 Joshua Massey testimony, p. 17
22 Stanley Stewart before Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Tragedy, May 24, 2010, Beckley, WV
23 Bobbie Pauley testimony, p. 97
24 Charles Semenske testimony, Oct. 26, 2010, p. 17
25 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 23
26 David Farley testimony, p. 23