REPORTS ON COAL TRUCKER'S DEATH CLASH
Federal and state investigators have issued conflicting reports on the November 2005 death of Chad Cook, a coal truck driver killed on a Mettiki Coal haul road along the Grant-Tucker County line.
Cook, 25, was killed shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, 2005, when his truck ran off the road, rolled over and collided with a guardrail.
State and federal mine safety officials did not investigate the incident until nearly two years later, after a Charleston Gazette report questioned the lack of an official probe.
Now, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is blaming Cook. MSHA concluded Cook was driving too fast and lost control of his vehicle.
But state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training officials drew no such conclusions in their own report, made public Wednesday morning.
Terry Farley, administrator of the state agency, said the delay in launching an investigation made it impossible to gather enough evidence to figure out what really happened.
Farley told the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety that the agency report on Cook's death "doesn't attempt to draw conclusions in the way we usually would."
Among other things, Farley noted that his agency could not examine Cook's truck.
"We can't come to the conclusion that there was some individual error by the driver," Farley told board members during a Wednesday morning meeting.
State and federal mine safety agencies did not investigate Cook's accident when it occurred. They were convinced at the time that it occurred on a public road that was not part of Mettiki's operations.
After being contacted by Cook's family, the Gazette found that Cook was killed on a haul road that had been part of Department of Environmental Protection mining permits since at least 1980.
At the entrance to the Mountain View Mine Road, a huge sign warns drivers: "This is a private road and not for public use." A smaller sign lists the road's DEP permit numbers.
At the Mettiki site, truckers for contractor Savage Industries haul clean coal from a preparation plant in Maryland into West Virginia, and up W.Va. 93 to the Mount Storm Power Station. On their way back, they pick up loads of raw coal from a Mettiki underground mine and haul them to the preparation plant.
In its report, MSHA said that agency inspector Phillip M. Wilt determined the morning after the accident that Cook had died "on a private road that was a short cut" between Maryland state Route 90 and W.Va. 93.
"His determination was made based on previous inspection jurisdiction over the mine road," the MSHA report said. "Based on this determination, an accident investigation was not initiated, beyond taking photographs."
The state's report says that two MSHA inspectors, Wilt and Barry Ryan, actually investigated the accident that morning. It does not indicate who - if anyone - from the state agency looked into the incident and decided not to investigate.
The state report, by inspector John Meadows, recites the basic facts of when and where the accident occurred. It notes that the road was dry at the time, and that a company examination found no problems with Cook's truck.
But the MSHA report, signed by District Manager Bob E. Cornett, quotes from a State Police report in concluding that "excessive speed likely contributed to the accident."
In his report, Trooper S.M. Durrah checked a box indicating that "exceeding safe speed" was a contributing factor in the accident.
Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, said that the trooper "has far more experience in vehicular accidents than most of our investigators, and his conclusion was educated, informed and based on his knowledge and training as a vehicular accident investigator."
But the State Police report also notes that the posted speed limit on the road was 40 miles per hour, and that Cook was not exceeding that speed limit.
The MSHA conclusions mirror those of an internal report by Cook's employer, Savage Industries.
Savage said that Cook was driving too fast and became distracted.
Company investigators could not determine how Cook might have become distracted. He hadn't made or received any cell phone calls, and other drivers said there was no excessive radio chatter. Cook's lunch box was closed. The company pointed to a flashlight that was turned on inside the cab. "The light itself is such that the on switch is recessed in the end of the light, which would make it difficult to be turned on inadvertently during the crash," the company report said.
In a State Police interview, Savage foreman Robert Hovatter told authorities that "speed was definitely a factor" in the accident.
But Hovatter also said that the trucking route usually takes about an hour and that Cook "was right at an hour."
Cook's mother, Gay Cook, said that the family believes state and federal investigators have failed them.
"I don't think we'll ever get our questions answered," she said last month. "After two and a half years, I think I've had my fill. I don't think anyone is going to do a proper investigation."