Federal mine rescuers who rushed into West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine after the deadly 2010 explosion shared some chilling testimony during an investigation.
Although they judged early on that no miners could have reached a refuge chamber deeper in the mine, they were sent to inspect the chamber anyway. Also, they were sent without adequate back-up teams.
"They could've killed every one of us," said Jerry Cook in testimony to federal investigators. "At that time, we were expendable that night, that's my opinion. They didn't care what they did with us."
The testimony of Cook and other rescuers reveals disturbing attitudes among officials of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration -- professionals employed by taxpayers to prevent mine disasters before they happen and to respond to them afterward.
"A lot us think we got real lucky," Mike Hicks, another MSHA rescuer, told investigators.
MSHA rescuers disagreed with Massey Energy officials about how to proceed in early hours after the blast. Robert Hardman, the MSHA boss on the scene, overruled his rescuers suggestions in favor of a plan pushed by a Massey executive.
Since then, the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel made clear that MSHA rescuers were right to have no confidence in the company's judgment. The state probe report described a workplace where the abnormal had become normal, where avoiding safety regulations was routine.
This is not the only example of the U.S. Labor Department's confusion about its role. For days after the explosion, precious little information was reaching families of the rescuers about the status of those who had been sent into the mine.
One Labor Department staffer, Charmaine Manansala, even had the temerity to tell the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who inquired on behalf of families of rescuers: "The rescue teams are the company's responsibility, so only they have that information that you're looking for. As soon as the company makes the info public, MSHA will post it on the website."
The company's responsibility? Really? Why did government agencies let a tainted firm with hundreds of safety violations decide crucial matters?
In a mine rescue, brave and skilled people work very hard -- first to locate and bring out any survivors, then to retrieve the bodies of those who died. But at the same time, they must minimize the chance of further injury or death.
The primary concern of UBB probes is to determine what caused the death of 29 miners. But certainly, a second concern must be to learn why government mine rescuers felt they were considered "expendable" once underground. This is a problem the Labor Department must correct.