The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 5, 2011

All seemed right with the world before disaster struck

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

MONTCOAL — Minutes before the world caved in, the midday sun blinked happily in this remote West Virginia hollow.

It was the day after Easter. Daffodils were in glittering yellow, trees were sprouting familiar green buds and all seemed right with the world.

Inside the sprawling Upper Big Branch mine, one that stretches some 5 miles into the bowels of the earth, mandatory air samples taken a few minutes before this hamlet was put on the world news map gave no inkling of any trouble. To the men underground, it seemed just another day of toil, digging coal and earning a paycheck.

Minutes later, the winding corridors turned into an industrial nightmare that has played out all too often in the mining business.

A deafening explosion roared through the spacious mine, trapping a crew of Performance Coal Co. miners just about to end a work shift and make room for another.

Surviving workers used weather terms to describe what they saw and heard. One man likened it to a tornado. Another pictured it as a hurricane.

Whichever term was more applicable, the results were undeniable — 29 miners quickly perished in the worst coal mining accident in four decades.

“There was no indication of a dangerous situation,” Stan Suboleski, a director of the parent firm, Massey Energy, told reporters three weeks after the disaster. “No hazards were found.”

At the outset, the bodies of seven miners were discovered. Eventually, the missing and unaccounted for dwindled to four. Prayer vigils intensified, but even the most faithful yielded to the reality of the moment, when those, likewise, had failed to survive the horrendous blast. All hopes for those four were dashed.

Once the final four were confirmed dead, the formal technology of the Upper Big Branch mission quickly changed from rescue to recovery.

Rescue efforts were hampered early on by a heavy accumulation of gases that would have exposed teams to injury, possibly even death, and to flush out the lethal air, multiple 1,000-foot holes were bored in the top of the mine, while scores of reporters from across the nation, grieving families and federal and state officials held their collective breath.

Soon, it became evident the quartet couldn’t have reached rescue chambers that would have provided access to sufficient water, oxygen and food to hold out for four days.

Even then-Gov. Joe Manchin, who lost an uncle and some friends in the decades-earlier Farmington No. 9 mine tragedy that left 78 miners dead, admitted teams had worked against “the longest of odds” in expecting any miraculous survival.

Mining is a way of life in West Virginia, one that is passed from one generation to the next, and with it come inherent dangers and the prospect of forfeiting one’s life.

“There’s just not much in West Virginia besides coal mining,” reflected one Performance worker, Eddie Lynch.

“I come from a long line of miners, but it’s not just that. It’s a good living for your family.”

Patrick Hilbert, a 31-year-old miner, felt the thrust of wind blowing in his face as he walked underground that fateful afternoon to begin his shift, and reflected, “I had a very good idea of what was happening.”

The toll exceeded the 27 miners killed in 1984 in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.’s mine in Orangeville, Utah, and was the highest since 38 died in a 1970 explosion at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.

One miner who managed to exit safely, Steve Smith, was among 61 workers inside when the blast shook the mine. He recalled how his ears suddenly became stopped up, “and the next thing you know, it’s just like you’re right in the middle of a tornado.”

Months afterward, federal and state investigators were putting the final touches of their respective investigations.

Within a month of the explosion, the House Education and Labor Committee conducted a special hearing on mine safety in Beckley. Miners talked about unsafe work practices and about the intimidation they felt from supervisors after calling attention to them.

In a media briefing, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said it learned a small pocket of methane gas probably touched off a large and preventable explosion of coal dust. Possibly, the agency said, the initial explosion was ignited by worn bits on a longwall miner and an impaired water spray system.

“We do not think this was a massive methane explosion,” MSHA’s coal mine safety and health administrator, Kevin Stricklin, advised reporters.

“We think it was small and turned into a coal dust explosion.”

This was in January, and MSHA announced two months later that a more thorough update would come in a June 29 briefing at the Mine Health and Safety Academy on Airport Road outside Beckley.

Regardless of what authorities have learned, for many Upper Big Branch survivors, there is no tomorrow, only a dark past that still haunts them.

For one such man, Stanley “Goose” Stewart, there is no returning to the career of 34 years.

“This one got me,” Stewart said in an interview on the back porch of his home shortly after the tragedy.

“I lost a lot of dear friends in this explosion. I couldn’t go back. I’m having a very hard time.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com