Read more in Coal Tattoo
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on April 5, a Massey Energy official called West Virginia's industrial accident hot line to report what sounded at the time like a relatively minor problem at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
"I want to report an emergency," the caller said. "It is an air reversal on the beltlines."
The Massey caller reported increasing levels of carbon monoxide gas, but said there were no injuries. The mine was being evacuated as a precaution.
"Thank you, sir," the operator said. "You have a great day."
"You do the same," the Massey official responded.
It would turn out to be anything but a great day for Massey Energy and especially for the families of 29 miners who died in what turned out to be the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
Within an hour, Raleigh County emergency officials were warning of at least 10 injured. Reports from various emergency agencies quickly spread, indicating that many miners might be dead.
But over the next eight or nine hours, solid information was hard to come by, even for mine rescue and emergency officials charged with responding to -- and trying to rescue any survivors of -- the massive explosion deep underground.
More than five months after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, federal and state investigation teams are still struggling to put together even a basic timeline of the events of those crucial hours after the blast.
When did the explosion itself occur? How quickly after that did Massey realize the gravity of the situation? When did specially trained mine rescue teams first make it underground? How long did it take for those teams to learn exactly how many survivors they were searching for?
"I think there was an awful lot of confusion as to what was going on," said Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.
Internal Massey records, government documents and interviews reveal a variety of conflicting information that investigators might not be able to sort out for months -- if ever.
For example, in a briefing 10 days after the explosion, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told President Obama that the explosion happened at 3:02 p.m.
Solis and Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said carbon monoxide alarms had triggered underground at that time "indicating this was the likely time of the explosion."
But internal Massey monitoring data obtained by the Gazette includes no carbon monoxide alarms at 3:02 p.m. Instead, the data shows that carbon monoxide alarms throughout the mine began going dead at 3:08 p.m.
And reports from MSHA and the state mine safety office indicate Massey told officials at those agencies the incident occurred at 3:27 p.m.
Even a few minutes can be precious when it comes to responding to a mining accident. After response delays at the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006, state and federal lawmakers required mine operators to report such incidents within 15 minutes.
Asked to explain the 3:02 p.m. report, MSHA officials initially referred back to the report to Obama. Later, in an e-mail response, MSHA district manager Bob Hardman said he listed the explosion time as "approximately 3:27 p.m. due to the uncertainty of the exact occurrence time."
A draft MSHA timeline, obtained by the Gazette, shows the agency is trying to "verify" the 3:02 time it included in its report to the White House.
Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, said it took some time for mine officials to determine that the "air reversal" reported to state and federal officials was caused by an explosion.
"Communication and power were lost immediately and no one knew what caused this," Harvey said. "The presence of CO, to my understanding, is not immediately reportable. Unplanned fires and explosions are, but no one knew for sure that there was a fire or explosion.
"However, the persons present quickly realized that the elevated CO levels, the loss of power and the loss of communications were very likely due to a serious problem and they reported it to MSHA -- even if they were not required to do so.
"The determination that there had been an explosion was not made until later," Harvey said. "I do not know what time."