Normally, the miners would have been shocked to find smoke in their primary escape route.
But many of the Aracoma miners knew there was a stopping wall missing along the mine's main conveyor belt.
"There was no stopping there," testified Brandon Conley, a utility worker who has since left the mine.
Roof bolter Jonah Rose testified that miners would frequently tear out stoppings to make shorter routes between main entry tunnels when they needed to move supplies around in the Aracoma Mine.
Pat Callaway, a mine production foreman, said workers also did this to create shortcuts to far-off areas for safety checks.
"And it was a daily thing, too," Callaway told investigators. "You'd knock the stopping, and go through and build it back and do your work.
Before they started their escape, Plumley told his crew that they might hit smoke. He must have known about the missing stoppings, the miners told investigators.
"I like to think he was smart enough to think of that," Billy Lee Mayhorn said.
Investigators don't know what Plumley was thinking. When government officials tried to interview him on Feb. 24, Plumley declined to answer any questions.
'Far from adequate'
Three months before the Aracoma fire, MSHA veteran Minness Justice was assigned to inspect the mine.
The 14-year MSHA employee told investigators he had become very concerned about growing safety problems.
Mine ventilation was a mess, Justice said he had warned the company. Explosive coal dust wasn't being cleaned up. The mine's maps showed air flowing in a different direction than it moved underground.
"Basically, the overall picture of the ventilation at the mine was far from adequate," Justice told investigators on March 30.
Hours before the Jan. 19 fire, MSHA ventilation experts had met with Massey officials to discuss Justice's concerns, Rich Kline, an MSHA assistant district manager, said in a sworn statement. That same day, MSHA ventilation expert Bill Ross was assigned to survey the mine and sort out the problems, another MSHA manager, Luther Mars, told the investigation team.
Ross never had a chance to get started.
The missing logs
When Justice arrived at the Aracoma Mine the night of the fire, he went straight for the mine's carbon monoxide monitors. Justice wanted to know where the fire was, when it had started, and how serious it was.
In the mine office, Justice found a computer printout. It showed gas alarms at 9:30 that morning, and again at 2:30 that afternoon - many hours before anyone ordered a mine evacuation or reported a fire to regulators.
Justice took the printouts, and the alarm logbook. Later, MSHA district manager Jesse Cole and supervisor Ray Saunders took the logbook from Justice. Then, it disappeared, according to interview transcripts.
"I did see the logbook laying on a table on a bench downstairs [in the mine office] 20 or 30 hours later, but I assumed that it was someone who laid it there nearby, and I didn't retrieve it," Justice told investigators.
Still later, MSHA investigators brought in Massey's computer contractor, Pyott-Boone Electronics, to retrieve the original log files from the mine's computer.
"I went to the log files to retrieve the information, and it wasn't there," testified Joey Davis, a technician with the firm.
'Your map isn't worth the paper it's printed on'
By the morning of Jan. 20, mine rescue crews from around the region had poured into Logan County to help search for Bragg and Hatfield.
Rescuers were faced with a basic and difficult problem: They didn't have an accurate map of the mine.
"We found it difficult to travel because of the maps that we were given," said Ron Hixson, an MSHA ventilation expert and member of the agency's rescue team.
Michael Emery, a rescue team member with Alliance Coal's Illinois operations, explained that, "Most of the ventilation controls were not correct that were on the map. The ones that were marked, a lot of them were out, and some that were out there weren't on the map at all."
Mars, the MSHA assistant district manager, recalled a rescuer from another Massey mine telling company official Drexel Short, "Believe it or not, buddy, your map isn't worth the paper it's printed on."
"And Drexel asked him, 'So just what company do you work for?' He said, 'I'm one of yours,' and [Drexel] shut up," Mars said.
Staff writer KenWard Jr.'s continued coverage of mine safety issues is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.