Chaos’ marred critical early hours after blast
BUCKHANNON — International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield offered a blunt description of the early hours after an explosion ripped through his company’s Sago Mine.
“What was going on in that two hours was sheer chaos and confusion,” Hatfield said during a media briefing last week.
The mine superintendent and three other managers rushed back underground to try to rescue 13 workers who had not made it out.
A specialized rescue crew was not called until 8:04 a.m. — more than 90 minutes after the 6:31 a.m. explosion.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was not notified of the emergency until 8:30 a.m.
Such bedlam has become all too common in major mining emergencies.
To some extent, it is understandable, officials say. Some workers might be scared, confused or even hurt. Others show incredible bravery, ignoring their own safety to try to save co-workers.
But in this disaster, as in others before it, the disorder probably made matters worse. Experts say such anarchy causes crucial delays in an organized mine rescue, and goes against exactly what is needed to protect workers when fires and explosions occur.
“Confusion and disorder after the initial discovery of an emergency is normal,” says one mine rescue report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “The first few minutes after discovery are crucial and the key is to minimize the chaos.”
Until various government investigations are completed, the exact causes of the rescue breakdowns at the Sago Mine will not be known. But in the wake of West Virginia’s worst coal-mining tragedy in nearly 40 years, it is clear that the industry has not completely learned important lessons from a long history of emergency response mistakes.
Just two years ago, MSHA tried to beef up its requirements for emergency evacuations of coal mines.
Under a new rule, MSHA required coal operators to designate one person for each shift to take charge during fires, explosions and floods.
MSHA also required this person to “conduct an immediate mine evacuation when there is a mine emergency that presents an imminent threat to miners.” The MSHA rule also broadened the requirements for various sorts of employee emergency training.
MSHA officials wrote the new rules in response to the September 2001 explosions that killed 13 workers at the Jim Walters No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. After the initial explosion, 12 Jim Walters miners raced deep into the mine to try to rescue an injured co-worker. They were killed by a second blast.
MSHA also acted because of a series of four explosions in July 2000 at the Willow Creek Mine in Utah. At Willow Creek, the initial explosion and subsequent fire occurred about seven minutes before the later explosions, which killed two miners.
“Although firefighting activities began almost immediately after the first explosion, evacuation procedures did not begin immediately and conditions worsened before the fatal explosions occurred,” MSHA said when it wrote its new rules.
MSHA found that, “had the decision to evacuate been made sooner ... the fatalities might not have occurred.”
Investigators have not yet released any information about what steps — if any — the Sago Mine had taken to comply with the new MSHA emergency rules. However, records from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training show that the Sago Mine had not always complied with various emergency guidelines.
Over the past two years, state inspectors cited Sago at least 10 times for not properly maintaining emergency escapeways — including those in the area where the Jan. 2 explosion occurred. Inspectors noted that roof falls and other debris frequently piled up in escapeways. Sometimes, water filled escapeways. Other times, the escapeways were not properly marked.
In one inspection in August 2005, the Sago Mine received five citations for various escapeway violations.
“Travel in this area is very difficult,” state inspector John Collins wrote after checking one of the escapeways. “Footing is difficult at best in this area.”
Also, the Sago Mine was cited five times in 2004 and 2005 for not having required emergency vehicles in working sections of the mine. The company also was cited for not having necessary first-aid materials or an adequate amount of fire hose, according to state records.
Hatfield, the ICG president, said some of the safety improvements his company had made in recent months sought to address those problems. For example, Hatfield said last week, ICG rebuilt about two miles of the primary escapeway in the “1 Left” area, used by miners who managed to get out after the explosion.
“If not for the work done over the last several months, that 1 Left crew may not have been able to safely escape the mine,” Hatfield said.
During his briefing last week, Hatfield praised the outside rescue teams and the Sago managers who went back in to try to rescue the 13 trapped miners.
“My hat is off to those people,” Hatfield said.
But he also noted that the initial rescue effort — by the Sago managers — was not necessarily driven by formal emergency plans.
“You had people emotionally torn — brothers on opposite sides of the smoke,” Hatfield said.
Even when Sago managers began to try to reach state and federal regulators, at about 7:40 a.m. by company accounts, the task was not that easy. Government offices were closed for the holiday. When Sago managers called the MSHA district office in Morgantown, they got a recording that listed numerous other numbers to call in case of emergency.
Sago and MSHA officials agree that no one from the federal agency could be reached until 8:30 a.m. MSHA said two other calls were made to MSHA personnel starting at 8:10 a.m. Both of those MSHA staffers were out of town.
When MSHA supervisor Jim Satterfield was reached at 8:30 a.m., he “made initial phone calls to obtain support and assistance from other MSHA personnel and then traveled to the Bridgeport office to pick up his mining apparel and a government vehicle.
“The travel time from his home to the MSHA office was approximately 10 minutes and the travel time from the MSHA office to the mine was approximately 60 minutes,” according to an MSHA timeline released last week. “MSHA arrived on site at approximately 10:30 a.m.”
In its timeline, ICG said last week that the “first rescue crews” arrived at the mine at 10:40 a.m.
MSHA said there were two teams on site by noon. Previously, though, a company official had said that, at 1:30 p.m., ICG was still waiting for a backup team to arrive.
In media briefing materials, MSHA argued that the rescue teams could not enter the mine until nearly 6 p.m. because gas readings suggested there could be a working fire underground that would endanger the rescuers and could cause more explosions.
And, after more than nine hours of searching, rescue teams pulled out of the mine at about 3:40 a.m. Tuesday. This withdrawal was “required to protect the safety of the rescue teams,” ICG Vice President Charles Snavely said through a spokeswoman from the public relations firm Dix & Eaton.
Through an agency spokeswoman, Bob Friend of MSHA said the teams were withdrawn when they discovered that the mine’s atmospheric monitoring system was still running. Given the air quality in the mine, power to the system could have caused a follow-up explosion, safety experts said.
Also, a borehole being drilled to check the mine’s air quality was nearing the mine roof.
“The bit and steel being used was not equipped to use water, which meant the bit was hot and could ignite an explosive mixture of methane,” Friend said Thursday.
Rescue teams did not return to the mine until 6:22 a.m. Tuesday.
Until the investigations are complete, there will be lingering questions about whether violations at the Sago Mine played any role in the disaster.
On Oct. 11, 2005, for example, a state inspector examining the area where the explosion later occurred cited the company because a two-way communications system was “inoperative.”
Hatfield said he did not know if the vehicle used by the miners who died at Sago was equipped with a two-way communications system. Both section crews had walkie-talkies, he said, but they did not work after the explosion.
“It’s probably a technical limit on the apparatus,” Hatfield said. “I don’t know that much about it.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.