The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

Rahall took charge as public official early on at mine disaster

BECKLEY — After satisfying the day’s itinerary, Nick Rahall had just settled in to watch his beloved alma mater Duke engage Butler for the NCAA basketball title game last April 5 when ambulances began to scream past his Beckley residence.

After a full day of visits around Raleigh County and fulfilling appointments at his downtown office, the 3rd District congressman was all set to see the Blue Devils corral another national crown.

Rahall would miss it all, from tipoff to the final buzzer.

“I heard an unusually high number of ambulances going by my home on Harper Road,” he recalled. “I just could not believe it, the number of ambulances. Almost one after another.”

His first thought was that a spectacular crash had occurred on the West Virginia Turnpike, about a mile up Harper Road from his residence, but he got on the horn quickly to call then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s homeland security chief and learned the awful truth: a horrific explosion had shaken the Upper Big Branch installation of Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy.

“I knew roughly where it was, so I got in my car and went to the scene,” the Democratic congressman said.

And there he would remain for a full week, save for a trip home for a quick shower and change of clothes. Only then did he learn of Duke’s title-winning performance in the national tournament.

Manchin was in Florida and unable to get an immediate flight home, so that left Rahall as the highest-ranking public official at the scene.

Briefly, he had flashbacks, remembering the tragic fire at the Aracoma mine in Logan County.

Upon arrival, he set about meeting with families, sharing their angst of not knowing if any survived, and if they had, whether rescue teams could reach them in time. News soon came that seven of the victims had been located.

Rahall was in on the first briefing for families, and it was “tough” to have to inform them of their losses, he said. He asked a State Police chaplain to lead them in prayer.

“I knew it was going to be a long night, a long week,” he said.

“The governor and I talked by phone. He told me he was trying to get back to the state. He did arrive a lot quicker than we thought.”

Rahall eschewed sleep during his stay in Montcoal, shuttling back and forth from a special compound for the families and the foyer of Marsh Fork Elementary School, used as a briefing arena for swarms of reporters, most of them from out of state.

“There are images I will never forget,” he said.

One is that of an elderly man, hooked to an oxygen tank, trembling and weeping the entire night inside a car over the loss of a grandson, one of the 29 victims of the worst coal mining accident in four decades. Eventually, the grieving man testified at a congressional hearing on the UBB tragedy in Beckley.

Another lasting impression for Rahall was the spirit of unity in a time of crisis among West Virginians, a trait not lost on the national media representatives.

“So many people there did not know one another, and many did, but whether they knew each other or not, you felt as one family praying together, hoping against hope that good news would come but feeling deep down that you knew what the end result was but didn’t want to accept it,” Rahall said.

Never was the working press a problem for either the families or the government officials, Rahall said, quickly pointing out that lessons in news coverage were learned from the Sago explosion of a few years earlier. The UBB families were shielded from reporters a mile or so from the elementary school. Raleigh County students were on spring break, leaving the school open to serve as a briefing area.

Many reporters slept on cots or the floor. All were impressed by the hospitality shown, including a constant supply of sandwiches, salads and soft drinks.

“There were no conflicts between families and media because they were kept separate,” Rahall said.

For him, the weeklong ordeal posed myriad difficulties, not the least of which was the lack of closure in the immediate aftermath, as crews drilled holes in the top of the sprawling complex in an effort to ventilate it and flush out dangerous gases.

“A couple of points during the week I was deeply worried that a decision — and thank God it was never made — to close the mine and never recover the bodies would come,” he said.

That was ultimately the decision in the long recovery effort at the Farmington No. 9 mine where 78 miners perished decades earlier.

“And there was the wrenching part on Friday night, after being up virtually all week in the command center, talking underground to rescuers as they were numbering the site where each body was found,” Rahall said.

For all the tragic loss of human life, Rahall said he believes some positives grew from the tragedy.

“I think both the coal miner and the coal industry have learned that it takes working together, and never can we be too vigilant in our efforts to improve safety,” he said.

Shortly before his death, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., authored a new, comprehensive mine safety bill that remains in limbo in Congress.

“We have worked diligently with all stakeholders over the last year in trying to pass this bill,” Rahall said.

On one occasion, it cleared the House but was returned by the Senate and stalled on its second go-round. Offered anew this year, the original legislation has been modified, and even more changes are in the offing.

“It is not our intention to harm those in the industry that do practice good safety and put safety first,” Rahall said.

“We’re trying to improve the outdated patterns of violations (POV) system. We’re trying to instill whistleblower protections. At the same time, we have to recognize the coal miner, if he or she loses a job, they have no alternative. But they have a family to feed.”

All the while, Rahall said more emphasis is needed on diversifying West Virginia’s economy so that more jobs are created.

Another provision that is likely to be tweaked is one that would crack down on mine operators using a system to tip off underground crews when a federal or state inspector has arrived at the scene.

“That’s been a problem, and it’s well documented,” the congressman said.

“We’ve seen miners testify to that. So we need to tighten up the penalties for such notification when inspectors are on the site.”

Rahall agreed that Congress would do well to consider the thrust of a state legislative proposal this year calling for a study on devices that automatically shut off underground equipment when methane gases reach a menacing level.

“But we want to be careful,” he said.

“If current law can address this problem and it’s not enforced, we have to learn why it was not enforced, rather than piling on with new laws. That’s what we have to be careful about here as well.”

Upper Big Branch may live on as a day of infamy in the mining trade, but there is one other positive aspect it produced, Rahall said.

“It’s given all of us around the nation in the year since Upper Big Branch a deeper appreciation of the job our coal miners do,” he added.

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