The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

Disaster tested Whitesville VFD’s emergency responders

WHITESVILLE — One minute David Hodges, assistant fire chief for the Whitesville Volunteer Fire Department, was picking up his 7-year-old from school. The next minute he was in-state commander for fire and emergency medical services (EMS) operations at the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.

While firefighters fought no flames this time, the disaster thrust the department into a trial by the fiercest of fires. At one point during the search and rescue efforts, the fire department was coordinating 31 ambulances, three helicopters and countless vehicles from state and regional fire departments. The Whitesville fire station also served as the morgue for the first seven bodies recovered.

“It was a test of a system, and it was a real trying time. We have never been exposed to anything like that,” said Hodges, explaining that county lines melted away in the midst of the disaster.

“It was a test of two counties,” he continued. “It was definitely a test of Boone and Raleigh resources. We commanded all of our resources to do it.”

Hodges described how mine rescue, EMS and law enforcement from across the state poured into the area but stayed streamlined and organized, splitting up into task forces covering everything from flagging traffic to treating mine workers.

“It was great to see all these agencies come together,” Hodges said. “Everybody served a role.”

With his own wife as a paramedic and his father — the Whitesville fire chief — on the state mine rescue team, Hodges said that springing into emergency action came naturally.

“You didn’t have a chance to think about anything but the job you had to do,” he explained. “My work was getting things established to get appropriate resources.”

Hodges rushed to the scene, where he assessed the resources, realizing he would face an initial scarcity of ambulances.

“About one hour into it, I remember having to walk around the corner and take a deep breath and say, ‘Hey, you have to do this. This is what you’re here for,’” Hodges said.

Hodges himself knew many of the 29 men and had gone to school with one. Hodges’ father is a retired coal miner, and his brother is a surface miner.

“It definitely hit close to home,” said Hodges. “We’re ‘Small Town USA’ here in Whitesville.”

For the small town’s fire department and EMS services, the most challenging accident before April 5 had involved seven bodies. Yet the crews turned out in full force — all 31 volunteer firefighters and 23 paid EMS professionals. They snapped into motion, following the Incident Command Structure, a systematic tool for coordinating emergency responses, often among agencies that do not regularly work together.

“You get into a sort of flight-or-fight mentality,” said Hodges. “You continue to do what you’re trained to do.”

While none of the EMS crew themselves entered the mine, they set up a rehabilitation area for the rescue workers, with medical screening and decontamination after the rescuers exited mine. The EMS workers did treat and transport the two survivors to the hospital.

The crew focused on running a tight ship, with vehicles entering the rescue area only to load up when necessary and leaving immediately.

“There was no freelancing: You were there because you had a purpose,” said Hodges.

Back at the fire station, the workers would gather to plan, talk and sometimes find a few moments to eat, to rest and to grieve.

“You’d have somebody go in the corner and break down for a minute,” said Hodges.

“We all knew what each other was going through — though we all feel differently, too. Some of my young guys, you could tell things were really getting to them. You could pull them into a corner and talk to them.

“We always have a sense of brotherhood in EMS and law enforcement, but you could definitely feel it then.”

Still, said Hodges, the crews stayed focused on the work ahead.

“We had to put emotions in check and get the job done,” he explained. “It was a constant building environment because we were always thinking about what we can do differently to provide better along the way.”

The days blurred together, Hodges explained. Aside from showering and catching snatches of sleep, the crews worked around the clock.

“That was our life,” said Hodges. “It was like we were there, and then the outside world was elsewhere. We didn’t know what was going on in the outside world.”

On Tuesday, April 13, when rescue workers recovered the final bodies, the EMS workers were taking down tents until dawn.

“I honestly don’t think it hit me, truly, until day eight, when they got the last men out,” Hodges remembered. “It seemed like you could finally take a deep breath.”

“We were able to work with mine rescue to get the miners out and give the families the closure they needed.”

Still, Hodges said, the intense emergency response situation revealed to him some flaws in the existing system (which he cannot detail, do the confidentiality of federal investigations).

“I’ve learnt what we needed … it was definitely a learning experience,” said Hodges. “I think the overall operations went very smoothly. I found the need for certain resources and equipment in our area.”

On a personal level, Hodges said, the trial by fire strengthened him as a leader.

“It definitely made me wiser,” he reflected. “I manned a scene that most career city fire chiefs will never get the opportunity to do.”

Hodges also emphasized the overwhelming “abundance” of community support for the fire department and rescue workers. The fire station stayed stocked with a full spread of meals and snacks for the workers.

“Whether it would be The Greenbrier dropping off food or the little old lady down the road making cookies … there aren’t words to express our guys’ appreciation,” said Hodges, adding that while he was grateful, he was not surprised.

“Never did I once imagine that the community would not do things like that; it’s just the way things are and always will be. It’s just a tight-knit community,” he explained.

A year later, Hodges said, as he reflects on the coordinated efforts of all the crews, he is filled with a deep respect.

“I am proud of my organization and the surrounding organizations that worked with us,” he said. “It makes me proud of my guys that we were able to serve the families and help give them the respect that they would need.”

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Montcoal Mine Disaster
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