The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

December 31, 2010

Explosion kills 29 in worst mine tragedy in 40 years

RALEIGH COUNTY — On a balmy day after Easter, holding the promise of a gentle spring after one of the more taxing winters on record, a collective sigh of relief over a sunny sky and the warmer temperatures went up in southern West Virginia.

Then, without warning, tragedy reared its ugly head.

A horrific explosion roared through the Upper Big Branch mine in a remote pocket of Raleigh County.

By the time the body count was completed, there were 29 workers dead in the worst coal mining accident in four decades.

One man sitting in a mine car, Stanley “Goose” Stewart, recalled a breeze emanating from deep inside the bowels of the sprawling mine complex. Seconds later, the air grew thick. And then, it escalated into what Stewart described as a hurricane.

Just what triggered the deadly blast at the Massey Energy-owned mine remains a question mark.

Almost nine months later, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is nearing the culmination of an exhaustive investigation into the tragedy at a Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal.

“The investigation of the UBB disaster is nearly completed,” says Amy Louviere, communications director for MSHA in Washington. “Although the investigation is nearly complete, work still needs to be done on the written report.”

Since the inquiry was launched, the mine has remained idle.

A separate investigation is in progress by the Department of Justice to determine if criminal charges against the mine owner are warranted. Raleigh County Prosecutor Kristen Keller is on record as saying charges could be brought at the local level, but in all likelihood, her office would defer to federal indictments.

Immediately after the explosion, nine miners were out of the mine — seven fatalities and two survivors. Gases thwarted rescue teams early on, and then 18 were confirmed dead. For a while, hopes remained that the other four would be pulled out as survivors, but they, likewise, perished.

Various theories have been produced in an effort to explain the April 5 disaster, all the way from negligence with regard to required safety measures, to Massey’s recent suggestion that natural gas seeping through the mine floor caused it.

Massey opened its own investigation but so far, no findings have been released.

In the fallout, both Congress and MSHA have been busy seeking ways to avert another serious accident. And Massey’s chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, has since announced that he is retiring from the firm, then declined to testify at a hearing this month at the Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training on the UBB tragedy.

Sweeping reforms in coal production were sought early in December in a proposal named after the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who grew up in a coal camp in Raleigh County, but House Democrats couldn’t muster enough votes to pass the measure.

Inspired by the Upper Big Branch explosion, the bill would have smoothed the path for shutting down troublesome coal mines, imposed stiffer penalties for serious safety violations, and provided more protection to whistle-blowers calling attention to unsafe conditions.

At a congressional hearing held last spring in Beckley, more than one coal miner told a House committee they were intimidated with implied reprisals for reporting hazardous work conditions at Massey coal mines.

Falling short of the required two-thirds vote, the proposal also would have compensated miners up to $200,000 for any punitive steps taken against them for blowing the whistle on safety violations.

The week of the explosion, scores of newshounds from across the nation began pouring into Marsh Fork Elementary School, closed for the spring break, using the facility to file stories and question officials in an endless array of news briefings. A jeans-clad Joe Manchin, then governor of West Virginia, teamed with MSHA authorities to help field the inquiries.

Manchin then called for a special team of state investigators, “untouchable” by any entity associated with mining, reminiscent of the above-board federal treasury agents known as the “Untouchables” in the Prohibition era.

As of last week, MSHA was still attempting to enhance coal mine safety by advancing a revising of its requirements for pre-shift, supplemental, on-shift and weekly inspections.

Under the proposed change, mine operators would be responsible for conducting complete workplace examinations, correcting violations, and reviewing with mine examiners on a quarterly basis all citations and orders.

“Examinations are the first line of defense for miners working in underground coal mines,” said Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for MSHA.

“Mine operators must take ownership for their workers’ health and safety by conducting basic workplace examinations to assure they are in compliance with health and safety standards.”

For some miners who were about to enter the ill-fated UBB to open a new shift on that tragic afternoon, the repercussions continue. A few have undergone psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, an ailment normally associated with soldiers in combat situations.

Just before the explosion ripped underground, Stewart and about 20 co-workers were awaiting their entrance when he spied a curious light, the reflection of the midday sun on a vehicle’s windshield, as if it were a grim portend of what was to follow.

“It was the brightest light I ever saw,” he recalled.

Within minutes, light turned to darkness, and 29 of his one-time fellow laborers were dead.

The tragedy not only renewed efforts by legislators to seek ways of improving mine safety, but refocused a nation’s eyes on the miners, themselves, often putting a hero’s mantle on them for putting their lives on line each day to supply America’s unquenchable thirst for energy.

Manchin, himself, before leaving for the U.S. Senate, implored miners not to hesitate reporting conditions that could put them in harm’s way, inviting them to call him personally. He guaranteed them insulation from intimidation.

“If they try to fire you, I’ll be in court with you,” he said in a Register-Herald interview.

“I’ll stand right up there with you. That’s about the best I can give you.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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Montcoal Mine Disaster
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