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Missing Aracoma walls spread smoke, probe finds

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."

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 Ken Ward 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.


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