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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A miner who lived through the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine struggled for more than an hour in an effort to save eight co-workers who also survived the blast, officials confirmed Friday in a significant new disclosure made as next week's one-year anniversary of the disaster approaches.
Timothy Blake of Slab Fork told investigators that he donned his self-contained, self-rescuer and then frantically tried to put emergency breathing devices onto other miners who he said were still alive at the time.
"He tried to give them every chance he could to survive as long as they could," said Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Stricklin discussed the details in an interview, in the wake of a new lawsuit that revealed nine miners who were headed out of the mine on a mantrip had survived the blast.
Lawyers for Geneva Lynch alleged that her husband, William Roosevelt Lynch, and eight co-workers "did not perish instantly" as government officials had led them to believe in the days and months after the disaster.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Boone Circuit Court, does not name Blake, but describes a "fellow miner [who] was attempting to deploy" breathing devices "and render aid to the miners on the mantrip."
Only Blake and one other miner, James Woods, ultimately survived. One other miner was rescued from the mine alive, but died either on the way to the hospital or once he arrived there, officials said. In all, 29 miners died, making Upper Big Branch the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
"The Lynch family was devastated to learn that Roosevelt survived the initial explosion," said Charleston lawyer Michael Olivio, who filed the suit. "Like many families, the Lynch family was told that all 29 miners died instantly."
Stricklin said he thought MSHA officials had explained some of Blake's actions to family members during a closed-door meeting in January.
Blake told investigators that he removed each of the other eight miners from the mantrip, put breathing devices on them and stayed with them for nearly an hour. At that point, Blake became concerned that his own breathing device was nearly exhausted and he started to walk out of the mine, Stricklin said.
Stricklin said MSHA did not tell families that workers on the mantrip had survived the blast, because investigators still are not sure that is the case.
"We wanted everybody to know how heroic Mr. Blake was and all that he tried to do," Stricklin said. "[But] we didn't know what their status was, and that's more of an autopsy sort of thing."