Coal dust is highly explosive, as is methane gas, which is naturally liberated by geologic formations underground. If methane builds up to explosive levels and is ignited, coal dust can be tossed into the air and explode -- making underground blasts 10 times more powerful.
When methane ignites in the presence of excessive dust, an explosion that might have caused minor damage or injured miners can easily shoot through mine tunnels, killing dozens of workers.
Government investigators and mine safety experts believe that may have been exactly what happened at Upper Big Branch on April 5. Traced on a map, the belts in question follow a path from production areas of the mine toward the portal, heading directly at the spot where seven miners were killed while on the way out of the mine at the end of their shift.
Massey officials have begun a public relations campaign arguing that coal dust was not involved in the disaster. They blame a massive inundation of methane gas.
Massey records show that one shift prior to the explosion, during a safety check between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. on April 5, two other Massey workers reported that eight different belt tunnels needed cleaned or rock dusted. That report indicates work was completed on seven of those areas, but not on the longwall section belt area.
The official Massey reports list the belt problems as "violations or other hazardous conditions." Federal regulations require them to be fixed "immediately."
Bobbie Elswick, 56, is blind in one eye and has limited sight in the other and has heart problems. She said she greatly depended on her husband.
"We did everything together. We were very close," she said. "Sometimes, it's just unreal."
She said she has had three strokes since the disaster. She lost the use of her left leg and arm, though she has gained it back. She said she's still weak and relies on her grown children to help her.
"I have a walker and a cane and a couple of wheelchairs when I need them," she said. "I try to keep going."
Michael Elswick didn't talk a lot about the specifics of the dangers in the mine, but his wife knows he was very concerned.
"One thing he said to me, 'If you weren't sick and needed hospitalization, I would not go back [into the mine],'" she recalled. "It does kind of make me feel bad, but that was his choice as well. He knew what he had to do and what he was doing."
Reach Gary Harki at gha...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.