Failed UBB rescue left hearts, bodies broken
This is the second of two stories. Read Sunday's story here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was almost 3 p.m. on April 5, 2010. Roof bolter Tim Blake and eight fellow crew members had finished their shift. They were riding a mantrip out of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
All of a sudden, "everything just went black," Blake recalled.
"It was like sitting in the middle of a hurricane, things flying, hitting you and stuff like that," Blake said.
Only Blake and the mantrip driver, James Woods, survived the horrible explosion. Woods suffered serious injuries, leaving Blake as the only one left to tell the world what happened to his crew that day.
With debris still flying around him, Blake put on his emergency breathing device. He wiped the dust from his cap lamp, but could only see as far as his hand in front of him. He heard a terrible sound.
"It was my buddy beside of me," Blake recalled. "He couldn't get his rescuer on."
Blake grabbed his friend, 25-year-old Jason Atkins, pulled him off the mantrip and put Atkins' rescuer on him.
He did the same thing for Woods, and for the other miners: Benny Willingham, Robert Clark, William Roosevelt Lynch, Carol Acord and Steve Harrah. He couldn't find Deward Scott's rescuer.
"All of these guys, I was feeling for a pulse," Blake told investigators in a September interview. "They all had a pulse, you know, so they were still alive."
When the air cleared a bit, Blake looked at his watch. It was three minutes until 4 p.m. His rescuer's one-hour air supply was almost gone. Blake left to try to get help.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said.
Bits and pieces of this story have come out in recent months, in part because of a lawsuit filed against Massey. And some of the confused events of the subsequent rescue efforts have been revealed through media reports and the release by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of sworn statements by mine rescue team members.
But in a report made public last week, an independent team led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer quoted extensively from an interview with Blake, statements of other individuals whose testimony was not released by MSHA, and from other documents and evidence gathered by his team over the last year.
The 126-page report sheds new light on those events, and raises even more questions about how state, federal and company officials handled the situation.
For example, CONSOL Energy's elite mine rescue teams refused to take part in the recovery of bodies from Upper Big Branch. They objected to a plan that ignored longstanding protocols and sent rescue teams in to gather the bodies before the entire mine had been examined for lingering safety hazards.
"The emergency response to the Upper Big Branch disaster raised concerns about how decision-making was conducted in the command center and the manner in which mine rescue teams were deployed underground," the McAteer report concluded. "Standard protocols were not followed, effective records were not kept, and rescuers' lives were placed in jeopardy."
'All we can do is pray'
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Massey Energy official Chris Blanchard and vice president of operations Jason Whitehead quickly readied a group of mine management personnel to go underground. They climbed onto a mantrip and entered through the mine's Ellis Portal sometime between 3:20 and 3:25 p.m.
Around 4 p.m., Blanchard's crew saw a single light coming toward them underground.
"It was Tim Blake, who had walked from where he left his crew," recalled section foreman Patrick Hilbert, who was driving the mantrip.
In a lawsuit against Massey, the family of William Roosevelt Lynch alleged that Blanchard and Whitehead "refused to make any effort to render aid" to Blake and his crew, "choosing instead to continue deeper into the mine where it is believed that they traveled near the longwall face for reasons that remain unknown."
McAteer's report cites testimony from both Hilbert and Blake that disputes the lawsuit's account.
Hilbert said that he stayed with Blake, while the rest of Blanchard's crew continued on foot to find Blake's co-workers.
"So I'm sitting there with Timmy and Timmy said, 'That's all my friends,'" Hilbert recalled. "I said, 'I know, Timmy, mine, too.' He said, 'What can we do?' I said, 'Timmy, all we can do is pray.'"
Using the mantrip from Blake's crew and their own, the team that came underground with Blanchard rushed the crew out of the mine. They arrived at the surface at about 4:30 p.m.
Blanchard and Whitehead stayed underground, continuing toward the longwall section to look for more survivors.
Attorneys for families of some of the miners have alleged Blanchard and Whitehead could have tampered with evidence underground.
Massey has said Blanchard and Whitehead were motivated only by a desire to rescue any survivors.
McAteer's report did not take sides on the issue. Blanchard and Whitehead both asserted their Fifth Amendment right and refused to talk to investigators.
'The mine is being evacuated at this time'
Just before he went underground, Chris Blanchard called Jonah Bowles, safety director at Massey's neighboring Marfork Coal office, with instructions on reporting the incident to state and federal regulators.
Bowles called MSHA's hot line at 3:30 p.m. and reported a "hazardous inundation of carbon monoxide gas" had occurred at 3:27 p.m. Shortly after that, Bowles told the state's emergency response center "it was an air reversal on the beltlines."
Asked if there were any injuries, he responded, "No. The mine is being evacuated at this time."
The McAteer report questioned Bowles' reports, saying, "By this time, it can be reasonably surmised that officials on site at UBB knew that they had a situation more serious than had been reported."
The calls from Bowles set off a flurry of telephone calls -- some official and some not -- among state and federal mine safety officials and emergency response personnel.
West Virginia mine inspector Wayne Wingrove had left Upper Big Branch at about 2 p.m. He hurried back to the operation after getting a call that "something bad had happened."
By the time Wingrove arrived back at the mine, he could see bodies lined up outside, covered with plastic, their boots sticking out. He said it "felt like somebody had their hand on my heart and was squeezing the heck out of it."
'It frustrated me more and more'
Shortly before 4:30 p.m., MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin got off a plane after landing at Charleston's Yeager Airport. Stricklin was on his way to Kentucky to, among other things, talk about growing problems at another of Massey's mines.
Stricklin's office called him to report, "There was a pretty major issue" at Upper Big Branch. Once in his rental car, Stricklin headed down U.S. 119 and took a left at Danville, following W.Va. 3 to the mine.
Stricklin volunteered to handle briefing miners' families and the media. Hardman, MSHA's district manager, would focus on rescue operations.
But when he headed in to brief the families the first time, Stricklin still didn't know for sure how many miners were dead or missing underground.
"As the evening went on, it frustrated me more and more, because I wanted to go down and give the families definite information of how many people were unaccounted for, and it seemed like I was having a very hard time getting that from Massey," Stricklin told investigators.
McAteer's team concluded that a big part of the problem was Massey's failure to finish installing a new communications and tracking system required by the 2006 MINER Act.
Derrick Kiblinger, a miner in charge of the installation, told investigators he had trouble getting parts fast enough and didn't have a large enough crew to get the job done.
Not until 12:30 a.m. on April 6 -- more than nine hours after the explosion -- did state, federal and company officials finally get an accurate count.
Around that same time, rescue teams were being ordered out of the mine after one of them detected explosive concentrations of methane underground. During a meeting at 1:30 a.m., Massey's Chris Adkins told the families he had little hope that the last four miners unaccounted for would be found alive.
'Whatever happened to us happened to us'
The McAteer team pointed out "another complication" in the rescue efforts: "News reports based on briefings by MSHA officials and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin raised the possibility that some of the missing miners may have reached a safe shelter" not far from the longwall face.
Hopes about this shelter were fueled by rumors that rescue teams had seen fresh footprints heading in that direction. But as early as Monday night, rescue officials knew that Blanchard and Whitehead had made those footprints during their initial search for survivors.
Earlier in the week, MSHA's expert mine rescue teams had already clashed with Adkins and with their own boss, MSHA district manager Bob Hardman. Hardman overruled his teams, and supported Adkins' insistence that rescue teams continue further underground Monday night without required backup teams being ready.
Fred Martin, an MSHA rescue team member, later testified that "political pressure from the state level" pushed rescuers to try a last-ditch effort to check the chambers before their 96 hours of air ran out. Rescuers weren't sure the move was necessary. They didn't believe anyone had survived the blast, and that checking the chamber was an unnecessary risk.
"Whatever happened to us happened to us," Martin told investigators. "But they wanted to see what was in that box."
'What an explosion will do'
On Thursday and Friday, April 8 and 9, mine rescue teams made several runs back into Upper Big Branch to try to find the last four miners.
State mine inspector Eugene White was with a Massey rescue team on one of those missions late Friday afternoon. They made it all the way to the mine's Headgate 22 section, where six victims -- Kenneth Chapman, Bob Griffith, Ronald Mayer, Eddie Mooney, Boone Payne and Ricky Workman -- had already been found on a mantrip.
"The best of my recollection, the mantrip was on the track," White testified. "There was two victims in the outby end, facing the outside. One's leg was hanging out of the trip ... the canopy of the mantrip was kind of collapsed down, and there was four victims in that end of the mantrip."
As White and the Massey team continued up the track, they found the bodies of Greg Brock, Dean Jones and Joe Marcum. At about the same time, another rescue crew found the body of the last miner, Nicolas McCroskey, over near the mouth of the longwall. Rescuers had been past the body several times but had not noticed it.
McAteer's team explained that damage inside the mine made it impossible to use vehicles alone to get the bodies out.
"A larger group of rescuers -- as many as 100 men -- formed a human chain," the report said. "Each two-man team carried the victims to another two-man team, who would then carry the victim to another team until the body reached a mantrip that completed the journey to the surface of the mine."
Later, White told investigators, "We've got a lot of young coal miners. I wish we could take them all in UBB now that the victims have been removed and let them look at what an explosion will do, and maybe it will help us down the road, to get these kids, I'll call them, to think about what's going on."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.