W.Va. report finds problems existed before Aracoma fire

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Two coal miners died because they became lost in a wall of smoke inside a burning mine that lacked a supply of water to fight the blaze, walls to keep smoke out of the escape route, or even a working telephone system, according to a West Virginia report on the Jan. 19 deaths at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

Survivors who testified before a team from the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training about the fire said there had been signs of trouble along the No. 9 belt line at the mine in the days leading up to the fatal fire. The mine is owned by Virginia-based Massey Energy Corp.

When the fire erupted, miners used handheld fire extinguishers, and discovered that fire hose couplings did not match the water line fixtures, which turned out to have no water anyway.

Bryan Cabell, a mine belt examiner, told investigators he used up two or three handheld extinguishers, then attempted to attach a fire hose to a valve, but discovered the unmatched fittings.

"There was a fire hose lying beside a hard water line by the storage unit. I proceeded to hook it up. I could not get it to hook up onto the fire tap," Mr. Cabell testified. He just threw the fire hose down and opened the valve, "hoping I could direct it towards the fire, but there was no water in it."

A co-worker tried to locate a cutoff valve where the water supply apparently had been shut off, but was driven back by heavy smoke.

"The fire was burning out of control and no means was available to fight the fire," the report states.

Another miner, Brandon Conley, testified that he discovered the problem with mismatched fire couplings when a smoldering fire broke out in the same area a month earlier "and he could not get the fire hose to connect to the water hose outlet. He stated this condition was reported to management at that time."

In his testimony, Mr. Conley said he left Aracoma because he "just [didn't] feel safe there anymore" working by himself.

Two miners, Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47, died of smoke inhalation after they became separated from other members of a work crew that learned of the fire only after someone in the mine office turned off the belt. The deaths, and subsequent conditions inside the mine, triggered a flood of after-the-fact safety citations, an internal investigation into the performance of federal mine inspectors in the agency's Logan, W.Va., office, and a criminal probe by the U.S. attorney in Charleston into an apparent attempted cover-up.

Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater declined to take any questions yesterday, but issued a statement that attempted to, in part, deflect blame to state and federal inspectors assigned to ensure safety compliance.

"The conditions appear to have occurred despite a rigorous requirement of safety examinations and inspections for underground mines," Mr. Gillenwater's statement said. "In 2005 alone, Aracoma mine personnel conducted over 1,500 safety examinations and federal and state mine inspectors conducted nearly 200 safety inspections. Such a process normally leads to the diligent discovery and correction of potential mine hazards. At Aracoma, it appears that deficiencies were not fully recognized by mine personnel or by state or federal inspectors."

The company's president, Don Blankenship, this week issued a statement declaring the timing of the report's release a political tactic by the office of Gov. Joe Manchin III. Mr. Blankenship is financing a wholesale attempt to oust large numbers of the West Virginia Legislature, which this year passed sweeping mine safety reforms in response to the deaths at Aracoma and the Sago Mine.

Bruce Stanley, a lawyer representing the widows of Mr. Hatfield and Mr. Bragg, said the widows hoped the probes by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. attorney would continue.

"Otherwise, they fear that West Virginia will become the home of still more widows whose husbands might have made the mistake of going to work for coal operators who place profits over people and then emphasize executive salaries over employee safety," he said.

"Everywhere you turn in this report, there is another safety procedure that was supposed to be followed that wasn't or safety equipment that was supposed to be in place that either wasn't there or didn't work," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union. Aracoma's workforce is not represented by the union.

Yesterday's report asserts a long list of failures by Massey, including the missing stopping, a non-functioning fire alarm along the belt line, inaccurate mine maps given to rescue crews, and an apparent attempt to erase data from the mine's computer.

The report says investigators discovered data in the mine computer had been erased sometime before March 2 of this year.

That last detail, which is believed to be part of the criminal investigation, is referred to in an attachment to the report, which provides a chronology from the point at which the belt line's fire alarm first goes off, 5:13 p.m., to the point of the last alarm, 7:13 p.m. The crew that included Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield did not receive word to evacuate until 5:39 p.m. According to the report, a crew working the mine's longwall section did not learn of the fire until later.

"At approximately 5:55 p.m. Mr. Gary Richardson attempted to call out his two-hour report when he discovered that the mine phone was inoperative," the report states. "After he updated the longwall crew, the Section Foreman Mr. David R. Runyon and Chief Electrician Mr. Jamie Adkins decided to see what was going on. Approximately 10 minutes after they left, the longwall section lost power. It was at this time that the longwall crew took it upon themselves to evacuate."

The report shows that an employee assigned to oversee the conveyor belt during the day shift at the mine said the belt had shut down several times during his shift.

Carl White said "he could see a hazy mist around the mother drive and storage unit [of the belt] but could not find any problems," the report states.

Mr. White was on the surface, his shift over, by the time the fire was discovered.

In lengthy testimony, Mr. White, whose job was to oversee safety along the conveyor belt, said he had been unaware until the night of the blaze that the conveyor belts were capable of burning.

He also testified about an earlier fire on another belt line, on Dec. 29, where hot grease dripped onto the coal on the mine floor and ignited.

He reported fighting the fire with the conveyor belt still running.

"I have been taught -- you know, maybe it's wrong, don't turn the belts off, you know. Keep your belts running the week of production," Mr. White testified. "So here's production, you know."

As it turned out, he said, the fire was beneath the belt.

He testified that he later informed his supervisor, Jeff Perry, but that no report apparently was made of the incident.

"I said, 'Jeff, we had a fire on Five belt.' He did not say nothing, nothing ... I definitely believe that should have been recorded in a book, but evidently it wasn't."

The fatal fire apparently was caused because of heat built up by friction from the belt running out of alignment and rubbing against the frame of the conveyor drive. The report indicates that the condition had been building up for a lengthy period.

Staff writer Steve Twedt contributed. Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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