BECKLEY, W.Va. -- An electrician at the Upper Big Branch mine, scene of a disastrous explosion that killed 29 miners, confirmed that he was ordered to bypass the methane detector on a piece of mining equipment -- an action that has become part of an ongoing federal criminal probe growing out of the disaster.
The detector was on a continuous mining machine four miles from the origins of the explosion and that piece was not thought to have played a role in the explosion. Investigators, however, are now looking to see if the practice of bypassing the detectors had happened in other areas of the mine, something that could point to wider questions about safety practices at the mine.
Micah Ragland, spokesman for Massey Energy, owner of the mine, confirmed Wednesday night that someone had bridged the methane monitor.
"I've worked for probably six or eight coal companies. They're all the same. They all do the same practices. It's not something that was new, it was just new to me," said George Holtzapfel, who now faces subpoenas in the investigation.
Federal investigators first learned of the monitor bridging from Ricky Lee Campbell, a former Upper Big Branch miner who was fired from his job at another Massey mine after he publicly criticized safety practices at Upper Big Branch. Massey lawyers said Mr. Campbell was fired for violating a safety rule at the company's Marfork Coal Co. Department of Labor officials last month won temporary reinstatement of Mr. Campbell after an administrative law judge ruled that he had been fired in retaliation for speaking out.
According to Mr. Campbell's version of events, he and two other miners at Upper Big Branch saw a supervisor instruct Mr. Holtzapfel to run a wire that would bypass a methane detector on a continuous mining machine on Feb. 13 -- seven weeks before the blast.
The detectors are designed to automatically turn off a machine once methane reaches a certain level. With the detector bypassed, the machine would continue operating regardless of methane levels.
Mr. Campbell's account said that Mr. Holtzapfel protested the order, calling it improper, but was forced to make the bridge.
"That's how it went," Mr. Holtzapfel said when told of Mr. Campbell's account.
Three other sources connected to the investigation also confirmed that investigators are examining the practice of bridging the methane monitors. The Post-Gazette first reported the bridging incident June 20.
According to two investigators involved in the probe, a joint state-federal probe into the blast is now examining both the mine's ventilation practices -- which are supposed to circulate fresh air through the work area and, in the process, remove any explosive gases, as well as other potential safety violations.
Several hand-held methane monitors retrieved from the blast area have been sent to MSHA's laboratory in Triadelphia, W.Va. Technicians are hoping to see if the monitors contain any residual gas readings from the time before the April 5 blast.
A federal grand jury in Charleston is expected to hear testimony from witnesses in the criminal phase of the Upper Big Branch investigation. Mr. Holtzapfel spent part of Wednesday conferring with his attorney in the matter. He declined to name his attorney.
He was deeply critical of Mr. Campbell, while acknowledging the basic outline of the information Mr. Campbell gave federal investigators in the days after the explosion.
Mr. Campbell first described misgivings about safety practices at Upper Big Branch in the days after the blast. In a video interview with the Post-Gazette he complained of frequent roof falls inside the mine.
"This mine was one of the worst I've ever been in," Mr. Campbell said. "I've seen a lot of roof falls here, ribs fall out. ... You see a lot of crazy stuff every night. I had a real bad feeling something was going to happen."
Mr. Holtzapfel said Wednesday night that he had been transferred to Upper Big Branch several months before the accident, a transfer he said he was hesitant to take because a relative had died in an accident at that mine in 2003.
As the criminal probe widened, a state and federal team has picked its way through 21/2 miles of debris-strewn tunnels tracing the scorch marks of a blast that ripped through the Upper Big Branch coal mine April 5, killing 29 men.
Wednesday, one of the team leaders said it could take until the end of the year to complete the examination of the shattered mine.
"The forces at work are complicated, are severe and are large," said J. Davitt McAteer, who is heading an independent investigation of the accident on behalf of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.
The team, which includes members of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, will examine burn patterns, debris fields, even the type of dust created by the explosion, in their quest to trace the blast's origin.
MSHA officials have said they believe the explosion was caused by a combination of methane and coal dust. Mr. McAteer, in his first extensive press briefing since teams were able to go underground in late June, said reach and volume of the blast were extraordinary and inescapable for those in its path.
"The miners suffered death instantaneously, it appears from all evidence," he said.
Investigators have traveled through the 12 miles of tunnels that make up the huge mine, located in Montcoal, Raleigh County, south of Charleston.
Mr. McAteer said investigators are battling pervasive dark and widespread debris throughout the area around the blast.
Mr. McAteer said the investigation had also been hampered by "systemic" problems throughout the coal industry -- notably a failure to adapt to new technologies. He said ventilation records and readings continue to be written by hand in paper ledgers rather than centralized in a computer system.
.Massey issued a statement Wednesday criticizing MSHA's ongoing probe.
"The fact that MSHA is traveling through areas of the UBB mine without collaboratively and comprehensively documenting what is potentially key evidence raises serious questions about the agency's ability to conduct a fair and accurate investigation," the company's statement said.
Dennis B. Roddy: email@example.com or 412-263-1965.