'I know too much' ... UBB widow says husband had concerns about mine safety
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bobbie Elswick wasn't surprised when she learned that her husband had phoned out a safety report from deep inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, warning of a buildup of coal dust along the mine's conveyor belt tunnels.
Michael Elswick told his wife often about his concerns regarding the safety of the Raleigh County operation.
"My husband always told me, 'I know too much. If I get killed, it will not be my fault. If I get killed, hire a lawyer,'" she said in an interview this week with the Gazette.
"He [Elswick] was experienced; he knew what to do. ... They have those safety chambers to get in after Sago. I thought, well, if anybody made it to the chambers, it would be my husband," she said. "But everybody says it happened so fast nobody knew that it was coming."
About a half-hour before he and 28 other miners were killed in a massive underground explosion on April 5, Michael Elswick, a fireboss at the mine, had phoned a safety report to co-worker Scott Halstead on the surface.
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 belt tunnels 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.
Another Elswick family member confirmed this week that Halstead had told the family that Elswick said just before the explosion that his eyes were burning and he couldn't see.
"That's when Scott Halstead said he was on his way in to get him," said the family member, who initially spoke on the record and later asked not to be named after an initial story was posted online. "Scott made it to the mouth of the mine and it blew. He didn't get a chance to go in."
That family member said Halstead recounted his last conversation with Michael Elswick, a story the family member says Halstead also told Upper Big Branch investigators.
Halstead's lawyer, Anthony Sparacino of Beckley, said Thursday that his client was preparing to go back into the mine to get Elswick, but that he could not immediately confirm other details of the situation.
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."
Bobbie Elswick 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 belts 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 belt 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."
Bobbie Elswick, 56, is blind in one eye and has limited sight in the other and has heart problems. She said she greatly depended on her husband.
"We did everything together. We were very close," she said. "Sometimes, it's just unreal."
She said she has had three strokes since the disaster. She lost the use of her left leg and arm, though she has gained it back. She said she's still weak and relies on her grown children to help her.
"I have a walker and a cane and a couple of wheelchairs when I need them," she said. "I try to keep going."
Michael Elswick didn't talk a lot about the specifics of the dangers in the mine, but his wife knows he was very concerned.
"One thing he said to me, 'If you weren't sick and needed hospitalization, I would not go back [into the mine],'" she recalled. "It does kind of make me feel bad, but that was his choice as well. He knew what he had to do and what he was doing."
Reach Gary Harki at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5163.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.