After Butts was injured, MSHA ordered Arch Coal to come up with a better plan to prevent rocks from falling on miners. The plan was due on Feb. 25, five days after Greger was killed.
Similar accidents have occurred in the Appalachian coalfields.
On Jan. 7, 1999, highwall drill operator Alan Hargis was crushed by a falling rock at No. 1 Contractor Inc.'s Stony Point Mine in Hopkins County, Ky.
MSHA investigators found that unsafe highwall conditions were not promptly fixed, and that Hargis was operating his drill with the cab on the highwall side of the vehicle, putting himself at greater risk in case of a rock fall.
On Nov. 20, 2004, the same thing happened to highwall excavator operator Kevin Lupardous at Massey Energy subsidiary Endurance Mining's Red Cedar Surface Mine in Boone County.
MSHA investigators found that Massey's mine maps showed that abandoned workings were located "along the entire length of the highwall." The highwall was unstable, but even after parts of it collapsed, company officials did not develop a plan for working safely in the unstable areas, MSHA found.
'That just isn't going to work'
The day before Sheets and Birchfield were killed by the rock truck, miner John Fox noticed that the strobe light on the Twilight Mine's portal van still hadn't been fixed.
"The light hadn't worked for several months," Fox said.
MSHA investigators found that there had been two similar accidents at the Twilight Mine, in September and November 2002.
MSHA cited Massey for not completing a proper safety check of the rock truck and not properly training its employees.
Agency inspectors also cited Massey for the van's broken strobe light, and for the faulty blind-spot camera system.
Massey had voluntarily installed the camera system, but MSHA found that the camera for the right-hand side of the truck was broken. Also, the front-view camera was not set up to come on automatically when the driver shifted into forward gear. If it had been, Mills might have seen the van.
A camera with automatic front-view would have cost an additional $600 in parts and $70 for installation, said Frank Foster, safety coordinator for Massey Coal Services.
"Those systems should not require a driver to manually push a button to select which camera view is showing," said researcher Todd Ruff, who has studied camera use at strip mines for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "That just isn't going to work."
On Sept. 13, 2006 — four days before the third anniversary of the accident — MSHA agreed to a settlement that cut Massey's total fines in half, from $68,000 to $30,600.
For one citation, MSHA dropped the fine from $28,000 to $12,000 when Massey argued that the rock truck driver was at fault for not making sure his path was clear before moving forward.
The settlement document notes that the driver "was a rank-and-file employee" and that Massey lawyers argued that "the negligence of a rank-and-file employee cannot be imputed to" the mine operator.
Five years before the Twilight accident, then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer had tried various ways to get cameras on large strip-mine equipment.
First, McAteer asked mine operators to voluntarily install them. Then, he announced that MSHA was considering a rule to require them. Agency officials published a notice and asked for comments from the industry, coal miners and the public.
After George W. Bush took office in January 2001, MSHA dropped the idea. Agency officials cited "resource constraints and changing safety and health regulatory priorities."
In West Virginia, state officials drafted their own rule to require cameras on strip mine trucks.
The original proposal, published in October 2004, would have required cameras on all trucks with payloads larger than 100 tons. Both front and rear cameras would have to come on automatically when the trucks were shifted to those gears.
Coal operators objected.
Anthony Bumbico, corporate safety director for Arch Coal, urged a "more flexible" approach where coal companies could come up with mine-specific blind spot safety plans.
In written comments, Bumbico said it would cost $200,000 to buy cameras for Arch Coal's fleet of 84 trucks. Also, the company would lose $500,000 in production while the cameras were installed.
"You're taking the truck that's in productivity and you're taking it out of production, at least half a shift," said Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
At first, state officials scaled back their proposal, so that fewer trucks would need cameras.
Then, in April 2005, members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety rejected the rule. Among those voting against it was Doug Conaway, then-director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. Under state law, Conaway, who later took a job with Arch Coal, was not supposed to have a vote.
The next day, board members backed off rejecting the rule. But board members took no action to approve it.
So in July 2005, the United Mine Workers threatened to sue the board over Conaway's improper vote.
Two months later, board members approved a camera rule. It applies only the very largest trucks — those with payloads of 230 tons — and requires cameras only on the rear of trucks.
'It's been really hard on the boys'
The day before the accident, Tamara Sheets was watching her sons run in a cross-country meet.
Her cell phone rang. It was her surgeon, with bad news. She had breast cancer, and would need a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
That night, Rodney told her that they would get through it. The next morning, he got up, as he always did, at 4 a.m. He left for work by 5:15.
Later that morning, rumors were flying about an accident at the mine. Workers were sent home. Other kids at Scott High School were gossiping about it. A neighbor told Tamara Sheets it was Rodney.
Today, Sheets' sons, Jason and Josh, are students at West Virginia University. Jason wants to be a doctor; Josh might go to law school.
"It's been really hard on the boys," Tamara Sheets said. "My husband and my sons were best friends. They were very close."
About two years after Sheets was killed, there was another rock truck accident at the Twilight mine.
On Sept. 30, 2005, one of the huge trucks ran over a mine contract firm's Chevy Suburban. Tamara's nephew, Michael, was one of three passengers who were hurt. It took rescuers an hour to pry him out of the Suburban.
"He told me all he could think about was Rodney," Tamara Sheets said.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.