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Bad truck brakes helped cause 14 deaths in decade

To access the Beyond Sago series, go to http://www.wvgazette.com/section/Series/Beyond+Sago

HAZARD, Ky. — It was not quite 10 a.m. yet on April 4, 2003. Truck driver James G. Williams had already hauled four loads of coal from Perry County Coal’s Big Branch deep mine to the company’s preparation plant.

On his way down a hill to the mine, Williams lost control of his truck. As it rounded a turn, the truck hit a guardrail just before a bridge. It rolled off the right side of the bridge and landed on the railroad tracks below.

Williams was pronounced dead at the scene from “multiple crushing injuries,” according to a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration report.

Later, MSHA investigators found that Williams had worked until 2 a.m. the previous evening, before starting back again for a 7 a.m. shift. They blamed the accident on Williams’ inexperience, fatigue and a “possible inattentive driver and failure to maintain control of the vehicle.”

But MSHA investigators also found another problem: The brakes on Williams’ truck didn’t work.

The right front brake of his truck was inoperative, and the others were not properly adjusted, MSHA said in its report.

It’s not a new story. In 14 strip-mine deaths over the last decade, MSHA investigators found that poorly maintained brakes played a role.

Some examples:

s On May 22, 1998, truck driver Robert C. Cooper was hauling 30 tons of coal at Lodestar Energy’s Shop Branch No. 2 Mine in Floyd County, Ky.

Cooper tried to downshift while going down a hill. The brakes didn’t work. The truck went through a drainage ditch and up a bank.

Cooper tried to jump from the runaway truck, and was crushed between the overturning truck and the road.

Investigators found not only did the brakes not work, but the truck’s 30-ton load was 21/2 times its safe capacity. Lodestar paid $20,000 in fines.

s On June 28, 1999, Roy E. Whitt went to work as a contract truck driver at Cannelton Industries Inc.’s Lady Dunn Preparation Plant in eastern Kanawha County.

After rounding an S-curve near a steep grade, Whitt lost control of the truck. Whitt jumped or was thrown from the vehicle.

Investigators found it was Whitt’s first day on the job, and his second trip down the mountain in his truck.

MSHA inspectors concluded that Whitt “was not familiar with the vehicle and did not receive task training on the vehicle he was operating.” Also, MSHA officials found, the brakes on the truck did not work.

The company has paid $10,500 of the $230,000 in fines originally assessed. MSHA officials have written off the rest as uncollectible.

s At about 2 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2005, 64-year-old Robert Chattin was driving an 85-ton rock truck down a grade into a pit at Reading Anthracite’s Wadesville P33 Mine in Schuylkill County, Pa.

Chattin lost control of the truck, and couldn’t make a hard right turn at the bottom of the haulroad. The truck ran out of control for 330 feet before it overturned.

The truck’s brakes didn’t work, investigators found. Mine managers did not do a pre-shift check of the truck to ensure it was safe, investigators said.

MSHA has not yet set the fines for Reading Anthracite, records show.

s On May 23, 2006, 23-year-old truck driver Steven Bryant lost control of a water truck while going down a steep mine access road at Miller Brothers Coal’s Risner Branch No. 1 Mine in Breathitt County, Ky. Near the bottom of the mountain, it overturned and slid over an embankment into a field.

Investigators found the truck’s brakes didn’t work, and that Bryant was not properly trained by mine managers. No fines have been assessed yet.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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