Both Logan miners dead
MELVILLE — Two coal miners were found dead Saturday evening in a Logan County coal mine, nearly two days after a belt fire trapped them underground.
Gov. Joe Manchin immediately announced that he will introduce three bills that he said will keep other miners from perishing before rescuers can reach them.
Manchin said he will introduce legislation Monday to provide “rapid response” to mine emergencies, for “electronic tracking” of miners lost underground, and to mandate “reserve oxygen stations and supplies” in mines.
“This has got to stop, and it’s going to stop — if I’ve got anything to do with it — with every breath in my body,” Manchin said during a news conference near the mine.
Manchin announced his plans just minutes after state and federal mine safety officials revealed that rescuers had found the bodies of the two miners lost in Massey Energy subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co.’s Alma No. 1 Mine.
The bodies of Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield, 47, were found together in an area of the mine where crews had been battling the conveyor belt fire.
“We have found the two miners we were looking for for the past 40 hours,” Doug Conaway, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told reporters at a briefing shortly before 5 p.m. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a positive outcome from our efforts.”
Along with the Jan. 2 disaster at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, the Aracoma deaths push to 14 the number of miners killed on the job in West Virginia in just the first three weeks of 2006. That total amounts to more mining fatalities in West Virginia than in any single year since 1995, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.
Bragg and Hatfield had started at the Alma No. 1 Mine together about five years ago, Manchin said earlier Saturday when he confirmed the miners’ names for the first time.
Bragg, of Accoville in Logan County, is survived by his wife, Delores, and two children, Manchin said. He had worked in the mines for about 15 years, the governor said.
Hatfield, of Simon in Wyoming County, is survived by his wife, Freda, and four children, Manchin said. He had about 12 years experience in the mines.
Families who had gathered in a nearby church for a two-day vigil learned about an hour before the media that the bodies of the miners had been found , said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Before the announcement, West Virginia State Police troopers escorted the families from the area to help them avoid the media that had gathered at the site since word of the fire spread late Thursday and Friday morning.
Conaway said it appeared that the two miners made a “valiant effort” to get outside, but were blocked by high temperatures and thick smoke.
“We weren’t able to get in this area due to the heat,” Conaway said.
Rescue teams battled thick smoke and intense heat, and the effort had slowed Saturday because of roof falls in the mine’s underground passageways.
Still, rescuers were able to enter the mine more quickly than at the Sago Mine, where higher carbon monoxide levels delayed entry into the mine for about 11 hours after the explosion.
Details of the bills Manchin plans to introduce were not made available Saturday evening. Late Friday night, Manchin had told reporters to expect a statement from him “that will change mining, not only in West Virginia, but in this country.”
“I feel so strongly about this,” Manchin said, as he briefed reporters on the accident. “We can do something, and we will do something.”
At the same time, the Bush administration indicated Saturday that it plans a review of coal mine emergency equipment, including the one-hour oxygen packs that proved to be inadequate at the Sago Mine.
MSHA released a copy of a “request for information” that it plans to publish in the Federal Register to seek public comments on a variety of mine-rescue equipment and technology issues.
“Over the last several years, improvements have been made to communication devices, sensors and other forms of technology in general industry,” MSHA said in a draft of the notice. “As such, continuous development and deployment of mine rescue equipment and technology are crucial to enhancing the effectiveness of mine rescue operations and improving miners’ survivability in the event of a mine emergency.”
MSHA’s move comes amid intense criticism of the Bush administration’s actions on mine safety, especially the withdrawal of more than a dozen new safety rules, including several that would have specifically aided rescue teams.
And, ironically, the push for tougher mine safety measures comes after a year in which the national and state figures for mining deaths reached record lows. In West Virginia, the state reported two coal-mining deaths in 2005.
The National Mining Association, an industry trade group, also plans to form its own commission to look at mine safety, spokeswoman Carol Raulston told the Associated Press.
“I think the industry has literally been shaken by this month’s events,” Raulston said.
In West Virginia, Manchin already had appointed former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, a fellow Marion County native, to advise him on the Sago Mine disaster probe and industry safety issues in general.
Manchin promised to hold a public hearing as part of the Sago investigation, and to issue a report from McAteer on proposed safety improvements by July 1.
In his public statements, Manchin repeatedly has talked about the death of his uncle, John Frank Gouzd, in the 1968 disaster at a Consolidation Coal mine in Farmington.
At Farmington, 78 miners died in an early morning explosion on Nov. 20, 1968.
Rescue efforts continued for more than a week, but gas readings showed that the mine could not support life. To starve the raging fires of oxygen, all the mine entrances were sealed.
Attempts to recover the bodies of missing miners continued for nearly 10 years.
Fifty-nine of the victims’ bodies were recovered, but 19 remain entombed in the Farmington mine.
During a speech Thursday to the West Virginia Coal Association, Manchin said he remembers his mother sitting with her sister, his Aunt Jenny, waiting to her news about the Farmington miners.
“Day after day, we didn’t get any news, then we finally got the word that they were going to seal the mine,” said Manchin, who was 21 at the time. “We got to the point where we would look for another rumor just to have something to grab hold of.”
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.