MELVILLE - On Jan. 19, the second shift was just getting started when the conveyor belts ground to a halt deep inside the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
Foreman Mike Plumley called to the surface to find out what was wrong. The main belt was burning, he learned. The mine had to be evacuated.
"We got to get out of here," electrician Mike Shull remembers Plumley telling his crew. "There's a fire."
Shull, Plumley and the rest of the miners quickly piled into their mantrip, a motorized train that ferries underground workers. They started out of the mine in their "primary escapeway," a separate tunnel that should have been clear of smoke.
But, the miners soon hit a wall of smoke, according to previously confidential investigation documents obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail. They had to find another way out.
The miners stopped, and climbed out of their mantrip. They scrambled to don emergency breathing devices, and stumbled through the smoke to a nearby airlock door. They hoped to find fresh air in an adjacent tunnel.
Investigators have learned that it was somewhere during this tunnel transfer that two Aracoma miners - Donald Bragg and Ellery Hatfield - got lost, the documents show.
Everyone else made it out alive. Rescuers didn't find Bragg and Hatfield's bodies until two days later.
Under federal law, the mine's primary escape tunnel should have been isolated from the tunnel where the conveyor belt was burning. Block walls called stoppings should have sealed it off.
But Aracoma miners have told investigators that at least one - and maybe more - of these block walls were missing, according to sworn statements obtained by the Gazette-Mail.
Miner Billy Lee Mayhorn told investigators that at least one stopping near the tail-end of the mine's main conveyor belt had been removed sometime before the fire.
"I know that there was a stopping there for a fact, because I was on the crew that built it," Mayhorn said during a Feb. 10 interview at the Holiday Inn Express in Logan. "We were the ones that isolated that whole belt off, our crew did. So I know that it was put there, but between then and now, something happened to it."
Federal and state investigators are trying to sort out who among the Aracoma Mine's management knew about the missing stoppings, why the walls were taken out, and why no one did anything about it before the fatal fire, according to the sworn statements.
"We've got a whole stopping that's not there," Terry Farley, administrator of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said during an interview with one of the Aracoma miners. "So unless I'm wrong, we've got a whole bunch of smoke that's coming up ... and turning right through that area where that stopping used to be."
Investigators from the state mine safety office are close to completing and making public their report on the Aracoma fire. Davitt McAteer, a mine safety adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, has said that he would release his own Aracoma report sometime later this month.
Late last month, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration settled a lawsuit in which it alleged Aracoma's parent company Massey Energy was stonewalling the federal government's Aracoma probe. David Dye, acting MSHA chief, said the company agreed to provide his investigators with the documents they requested. No fines were involved in the settlement.
At the same time, federal prosecutors in Charleston are continuing a criminal investigation of the fire, started at MSHA's request.
'It got thick in a hurry'
At the Aracoma Mine, dozens of tunnels stretch for miles under the Logan County hills, east of Stollings in the shadow of Blair Mountain.
Most underground mines contain a series of long, parallel passages, called entries, intersected by smaller tunnels called crosscuts. Coal mine managers must carefully design and maintain such tunnels to avoid fires, explosions and other disasters.
Miners use cinder blocks and other construction materials to block off crosscuts from entries with walls called stoppings. In some tunnels, huge fans blow fresh air for miners to breathe and to sweep dangerous gases away. In others, conveyor belts haul coal to the surface. In still others, track is run for trains that carry miners in to work.
One tunnel must always be designated as the key escape route for miners. Under the law, it must be fully isolated from belt entries, to avoid having them fill with smoke if there's a fire.
It was one such "primary escapeway" that Plumley's crew tried to use to get out of the Aracoma Mine fire.
At first, the miners hit only light smoke. They put their shirts over their mouths and noses. It was probably a minor belt fire, the miners thought. They'd be back to work in a few hours.
"One of the guys actually made a joke - 'I've got a pen and paper if anybody wants to leave a note,'" recalled shuttle car operator Pat Kisner.
The joking didn't last long. The smoke thickened.
Steve Hensley, a continuous mining machine operator, was driving the mantrip during the escape.
"It got thick in a hurry, right up on us, you know," Hensley told investigators.
So, Hensley stopped the mantrip. The miners got off, and headed for the airlock doors. Once they were through, Plumley did a headcount and came up two men short. Several miners went back through the doors and yelled for Bragg and Hatfield, but they weren't there.
Aracoma miners couldn't figure out for sure what happened to Bragg and Hatfield. Maybe they got turned around while trying to don their self-contained self-rescuers in the thick smoke, some said. Maybe they thought they knew a better way out, others said.
One thing was certain, Kisner said: "If your primary escapeway wasn't blocked, we could have stayed on the mantrip and rode the mantrip all the way outside."