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Some at UBB Mine did not die in blast

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A miner who lived through the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine struggled for more than an hour in an effort to save eight co-workers who also survived the blast, officials confirmed Friday in a significant new disclosure made as next week's one-year anniversary of the disaster approaches.

Timothy Blake of Slab Fork told investigators that he donned his self-contained, self-rescuer and then frantically tried to put emergency breathing devices onto other miners who he said were still alive at the time.

"He tried to give them every chance he could to survive as long as they could," said Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Stricklin discussed the details in an interview, in the wake of a new lawsuit that revealed nine miners who were headed out of the mine on a mantrip had survived the blast.

Lawyers for Geneva Lynch alleged that her husband, William Roosevelt Lynch, and eight co-workers "did not perish instantly" as government officials had led them to believe in the days and months after the disaster.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Boone Circuit Court, does not name Blake, but describes a "fellow miner [who] was attempting to deploy" breathing devices "and render aid to the miners on the mantrip."

Only Blake and one other miner, James Woods, ultimately survived. One other miner was rescued from the mine alive, but died either on the way to the hospital or once he arrived there, officials said. In all, 29 miners died, making Upper Big Branch the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

"The Lynch family was devastated to learn that Roosevelt survived the initial explosion," said Charleston lawyer Michael Olivio, who filed the suit. "Like many families, the Lynch family was told that all 29 miners died instantly."

Stricklin said he thought MSHA officials had explained some of Blake's actions to family members during a closed-door meeting in January.

Blake told investigators that he removed each of the other eight miners from the mantrip, put breathing devices on them and stayed with them for nearly an hour. At that point, Blake became concerned that his own breathing device was nearly exhausted and he started to walk out of the mine, Stricklin said.

Stricklin said MSHA did not tell families that workers on the mantrip had survived the blast, because investigators still are not sure that is the case.

"We wanted everybody to know how heroic Mr. Blake was and all that he tried to do," Stricklin said. "[But] we didn't know what their status was, and that's more of an autopsy sort of thing."

Davitt McAteer, who is conducting an independent investigation of the mine disaster, said evidence uncovered so far by his team supports the lawsuit's version that all nine miners on the mantrip were alive after the explosion. McAteer declined to provide more details until the information is provided to the families when his team's report is finalized.

A Wall Street Journal report published on April 12, 2010, made a brief reference to one Upper Big Branch miner trying to put emergency breathing devices on co-workers who had survived the blast.

However, federal and state mine-rescue coordinators, along with elected officials, had told families and the media that the explosion was so powerful that all the miners died instantly.

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin, for example, informed the news media that he had told the miners' families, "that the rescue workers told us that they can assure us no one suffered, because it was so instantaneous because of the power of this."

Stricklin suggested that was a misunderstanding. Officials making such comments were referring to the last four victims, who were found after a weeklong search, not to the 25 miners who were found dead the night of the blast, Stricklin said.

The explosion occurred shortly after 3 p.m., about the normal time for a shift change at the Raleigh County mine.

Investigators believe the blast involved a methane ignition that was made far worse by a buildup underground of highly explosive coal dust. The explosion is the subject of numerous investigations, including a broad-ranging federal criminal inquiry.

After the explosion, but before formal rescue teams arrived, Massey officials Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead took a team of workers underground to search for survivors.

In their new lawsuit, lawyers for the Lynch family have named Blanchard and Whitehead as defendants. The lawsuit alleges that the two men found Lynch's mantrip, but "refused to make any effort to render aid, choosing instead to continue deeper into the mine where it is believed that they traveled near the longwall face for reasons that remain unknown."

Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said those allegations are "completely untrue." Massey has said that Blanchard, Whitehead and the crew working with them helped Blake and Woods out of the mine. Blanchard and Whitehead also assisted the other men from the mantrip, assigned workers to get them out of the mine, and then continued on underground to look for other survivors, the company has said.

McAteer said his investigation has not found any evidence to support the lawsuit's allegations against Blanchard and Whitehead.

Stricklin noted that federal investigators have not interviewed Blanchard or Whitehead. Both men asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and declined to answer questions about the disaster.

However, Stricklin said: "We don't think that they just walked by or kept going without trying to provide any assistance."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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