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MSHA rescue teams, Massey at odds early after UBB blast

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rescue teams from the federal government clashed bitterly with Massey Energy officials about how to safely search the Upper Big Branch Mine for potential survivors in the hours after a huge explosion in April 2010, according to previously confidential records obtained by the Gazette-Mail.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rescuers were worried about the lack of backup teams as they combed the sprawling underground mine, amid concerns about the possibility of additional blasts and other dangerous conditions.

MSHA supervisors, however, overruled their own rescue experts at the insistence of Massey officials, according to testimony those MSHA rescue teams provided during closed-door interviews with state and federal investigators.

"They could've . . . they could've killed every one of us," said Jerry Cook, one of the top MSHA mine rescue team members. "At that time, we were expendable that night, that's my opinion. They didn't care what they did with us."

Mike Hicks, another MSHA rescuer, told investigators he and his colleagues remain upset about the way the operation was handled.

"A lot of people have a lot of concerns of what happened," Hicks testified, "because a lot of us think we got real lucky."

Testimony from federal, state and company mine rescue personnel was being released Friday to family members of at least some of the miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion.

The documents -- hundreds of pages of interview transcripts from nearly two dozen rescue team members -- provide the most detailed picture to date of what happened during the weeklong rescue effort. An ad hoc team of Massey rescuers saved the lives of two miners who were injured by the blast, but 29 other miners died.

MSHA apparently planned the release of the rescue team interview transcripts to address continuing questions and concerns from the families about how the operation was handled. The release by MSHA also comes as an independent investigation team led by former agency chief Davitt McAteer is finalizing its report, which was expected to quote extensively from the interview transcript.

Mine rescue team members were among more than 250 witnesses interviewed by state and federal investigators in the inquiry of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster since December 1970. So far, government officials have kept a tight lid on the contents of the interviews, citing their concerns that letting certain information out too soon could harm an ongoing criminal investigation of Massey's operations.

Families of some of the Upper Big Branch miners have been especially upset because of reports that Massey officials were unable -- for hours after the explosion -- to say exactly how many miners were missing underground. Also, some families were shocked a few weeks ago when word leaked that not all of the 29 workers had died instantly from the blast, as the families had been led to believe.

Massey officials did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said the agency would issue a news release and post the transcripts online Monday, but would have no comment until then. "We wanted to give the families time to review them privately before they go public," Louviere said in an email message.

Families were required to pick up the transcripts -- a 4-inch-thick stack of double-sided copies -- in person at the MSHA training academy outside Beckley.

Initially, 25 miners were accounted for as dead. Rescuers then spent a week trying to find four others not accounted for deep underground.

The transcripts describe incredibly tense rescue efforts, especially in the immediate hours after the blast, when rescue teams from mining companies and the government desperately searched -- and hoped -- for survivors.

"Our objective was to try to search the coal mine, find those persons and hopefully bring them to the surface," testified Eugene White, a leader of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training rescue effort.

Testimony from several witnesses describes a confrontation between MSHA rescue team members, their own supervisor and Massey officials Chris Blanchard, Jason Whitehead and Chris Adkins.

MSHA team members became concerned when Blanchard, who was underground, was directing teams to continue underground beyond the official "fresh-air base" without having backup teams available, as required under generally accepted mine rescue protocols.

"Blanchard was telling us that the command center wanted us to go, split up ... and we did not have any backup," Hicks testified.

Hicks and Cook objected and wanted to hear the instructions directly from the senior MSHA official involved in the rescue at that point, District Manager Bob Hardman.

According to Hicks, Hardman sided with the Massey officials, overruling longstanding mine rescue guidelines.

"Bob basically told me the same thing - we have to hurry," Hicks said. "I said, 'Bob, I don't have the [backup] teams here.' He said, 'We have to go.'"

As rescue efforts continued, Hicks and Cook were told the next day by MSHA's top mine rescue official, Virgil Brown, that they were no longer needed for the efforts underground at Upper Big Branch.

"He said that we went through enough and that we didn't need to go through anymore at the mines," Cook testified. "I thought that was a lot of bull. I'm a mine rescue person. That's what I do.

"And I just never did believe that was the reason why we didn't go back underground," Cook said. "I think because we run our mouths and we done what we did when we was in there.

"You know, it's bad enough to try to find 29 people," Cook said. "You don't need to have 40 more to look for."

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


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