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UBB fireboss reported burning eyes prior to blast, family says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Massey Energy fireboss who warned of a buildup of explosive coal dust shortly before the company's Upper Big Branch Mine blew up also complained of a strange burning sensation in his eyes and said he couldn't see, state and federal investigators have been told.

About a half-hour before he and 28 other miners were killed in the explosion that rocked the Raleigh County mine, Michael Elswick phoned a safety report to co-worker Scott Halstead on the surface.

Jami Cash, Elswick's daughter, said Halstead told her family that Elswick said his eyes were burning and he couldn't see.

"That's when Scott Halstead said he was on his way in to get him," Cash said in an interview with the Gazette. "Scott made it to the mouth of the mine and it blew. He didn't get a chance to go in."

Cash said Halstead recounted for her his last conversation with her father, a story she says he also told Upper Big Branch investigators. Through his lawyer, Halstead has so far declined media interview requests, but did answer questions from government investigators.

"He was the voice dad couldn't be," Cash said of Halstead. "I'd like to thank him, if I could ... He's been having a rough time since all of this happened."

That final safety check at Upper Big Branch was in the news earlier this week, when The Associated Press first reported that mine records showed Elswick warned that conveyor belts in the mine needed to be cleaned and treated with powdered limestone, or "rock dust," to control the buildup of explosive coal dust.

The final safety report from Elswick and Halstead came at 2:30 p.m., a little more than 30 minutes before the deadly explosion is believed to have occurred.

In that report, the two men noted that 10 of the mine's conveyor belts either needed to be cleaned of excess coal dust or treated to avoid a buildup of the dust. The next page in the mine's logbook, where notations about hazards being corrected would be entered, is blank.

Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, conceded that the dust issues outlined in the final safety report could not have been fixed between Elwick's call out of the mine and the time of the blast. However, Harvey told the AP that the logbook observations are meant as more of a reminder than as a cause for concern.

"You make a notation of it so that it gets done, and the fact that a notation was made doesn't mean it was a problem," Harvey told the AP. "That's the way the company looks at it. Just like you'd make notations, at least mental notations, to vacuum your floor."

Elswick's widow, Bobbie, took exception to those remarks.

"That really made me mad, to say something like there's no big deal about it," she said. "If I don't dust my floor, it's not going to kill me. If I have a gas leak in my house, I'm going to do something about it. That's just about how I feel about it. It's dangerous."

Coal dust is highly explosive, as is methane gas, which is naturally liberated by geologic formations underground. If methane builds up to explosive levels and is ignited, coal dust can be tossed into the air and explode -- making underground blasts 10 times more powerful.

When methane ignites in the presence of excessive dust, an explosion that might have caused minor damage or injured miners can easily shoot through mine tunnels, killing dozens of workers.

Government investigators and mine safety experts believe that may have been exactly what happened at Upper Big Branch on April 5. Traced on a map, the belt tunnels in question follow a path from production areas of the mine toward the portal, heading directly at the spot where seven miners were killed while on the way out of the mine at the end of their shift.

Massey officials have begun a public relations campaign arguing that coal dust was not involved in the disaster. They blame a massive inundation of methane gas.Massey records show that one shift prior to the explosion, during a safety check between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. on April 5, two other Massey workers reported that eight different tunnels needed cleaned or rock dusted. That report indicates work was completed on seven of those areas, but not on the longwall section belt area.

The official Massey reports list the belt problems as "violations or other hazardous conditions." Federal regulations require them to be fixed "immediately." Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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