This is the second of two stories. Read Sunday's story here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was almost 3 p.m. on April 5, 2010. Roof bolter Tim Blake and eight fellow crew members had finished their shift. They were riding a mantrip out of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
All of a sudden, "everything just went black," Blake recalled.
"It was like sitting in the middle of a hurricane, things flying, hitting you and stuff like that," Blake said.
Only Blake and the mantrip driver, James Woods, survived the horrible explosion. Woods suffered serious injuries, leaving Blake as the only one left to tell the world what happened to his crew that day.
With debris still flying around him, Blake put on his emergency breathing device. He wiped the dust from his cap lamp, but could only see as far as his hand in front of him. He heard a terrible sound.
"It was my buddy beside of me," Blake recalled. "He couldn't get his rescuer on."
Blake grabbed his friend, 25-year-old Jason Atkins, pulled him off the mantrip and put Atkins' rescuer on him.
He did the same thing for Woods, and for the other miners: Benny Willingham, Robert Clark, William Roosevelt Lynch, Carol Acord and Steve Harrah. He couldn't find Deward Scott's rescuer.
"All of these guys, I was feeling for a pulse," Blake told investigators in a September interview. "They all had a pulse, you know, so they were still alive."
When the air cleared a bit, Blake looked at his watch. It was three minutes until 4 p.m. His rescuer's one-hour air supply was almost gone. Blake left to try to get help.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said.
Bits and pieces of this story have come out in recent months, in part because of a lawsuit filed against Massey. And some of the confused events of the subsequent rescue efforts have been revealed through media reports and the release by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of sworn statements by mine rescue team members.
But in a report made public last week, an independent team led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer quoted extensively from an interview with Blake, statements of other individuals whose testimony was not released by MSHA, and from other documents and evidence gathered by his team over the last year.
The 126-page report sheds new light on those events, and raises even more questions about how state, federal and company officials handled the situation.
For example, CONSOL Energy's elite mine rescue teams refused to take part in the recovery of bodies from Upper Big Branch. They objected to a plan that ignored longstanding protocols and sent rescue teams in to gather the bodies before the entire mine had been examined for lingering safety hazards.
"The emergency response to the Upper Big Branch disaster raised concerns about how decision-making was conducted in the command center and the manner in which mine rescue teams were deployed underground," the McAteer report concluded. "Standard protocols were not followed, effective records were not kept, and rescuers' lives were placed in jeopardy."
'All we can do is pray'
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Massey Energy official Chris Blanchard and vice president of operations Jason Whitehead quickly readied a group of mine management personnel to go underground. They climbed onto a mantrip and entered through the mine's Ellis Portal sometime between 3:20 and 3:25 p.m.
Around 4 p.m., Blanchard's crew saw a single light coming toward them underground.
"It was Tim Blake, who had walked from where he left his crew," recalled section foreman Patrick Hilbert, who was driving the mantrip.
In a lawsuit against Massey, the family of William Roosevelt Lynch alleged that Blanchard and Whitehead "refused to make any effort to render aid" to Blake and his crew, "choosing instead to continue deeper into the mine where it is believed that they traveled near the longwall face for reasons that remain unknown."
McAteer's report cites testimony from both Hilbert and Blake that disputes the lawsuit's account.
Hilbert said that he stayed with Blake, while the rest of Blanchard's crew continued on foot to find Blake's co-workers.
"So I'm sitting there with Timmy and Timmy said, 'That's all my friends,'" Hilbert recalled. "I said, 'I know, Timmy, mine, too.' He said, 'What can we do?' I said, 'Timmy, all we can do is pray.'"
Using the mantrip from Blake's crew and their own, the team that came underground with Blanchard rushed the crew out of the mine. They arrived at the surface at about 4:30 p.m.
Blanchard and Whitehead stayed underground, continuing toward the longwall section to look for more survivors.
Attorneys for families of some of the miners have alleged Blanchard and Whitehead could have tampered with evidence underground.
Massey has said Blanchard and Whitehead were motivated only by a desire to rescue any survivors.
McAteer's report did not take sides on the issue. Blanchard and Whitehead both asserted their Fifth Amendment right and refused to talk to investigators.
'The mine is being evacuated at this time'