THE NTTC IS NO LONGER FUNDED AND THIS WEBSITE WILL NOT BE UPDATED

NTTC Logo - Return to homepage 

Chapter 1

Events leading up to the explosion

“Normal” and “typical” were words used to describe the early hours of April 5 by miners who made it out of the Upper Big Branch mine alive at the end of the dayshift.

“Just seemed like a normal day,” said Danny “Joe” Ferrell, a continuous miner operator who had worked at UBB for 16 years and claimed to have been on the crew that took the first cut of coal out of the mine.1

“Just a normal day, as I remember,” echoed Gene Martin, an outside loader operator with 35 years of mining experience.2

“It’s … just a typical day basically … everybody goes to the sections, people go to the longwall,” said Adam Jenkins, who had been asked to fill in as dispatcher the week before.3

As the day progressed, miners from the portal section, barrier section, construction crew, headgate and tailgate phoned in production reports to Jenkins, just as they did every day. “It was a typical day, just like the day before, or two days before. It’s wasn’t nothing no different,” the dispatcher said.4

The day didn’t start so well for two relatively inexperienced miners who made up what they called the “water crew,” also referred to as the “pump crew.” Red hat Jason Stanley and his buddy, David Farley, who had only recently earned his black hat, were charged with keeping pumps working behind the longwall headgate in the direction of the Bandytown fan. When they arrived at their work site and realized the pumps had shut down some time during the Easter weekend, Farley and Stanley knew they would be spending the day working in deep water.5

Even before he learned about the water situation, Farley had the sense that something was different about the air velocity in the mine. Soon after he, Stanley, and their foreman, Jeremy Burghduff, entered the mine at about 6:00 a.m., Farley remembers commenting to Stanley, “It don’t feel like no air is blowing,” and that Stanley replied, “It don’t, does it?”6

Although it wasn’t uncommon for the men to experience low air when they first entered the mine, Farley said the crew usually could feel some movement when they got behind the longwall. “But that day, it was almost like there was nothing,” he said.7

Farley said Burghduff didn’t respond to the conversation about airflow, and the foreman did not go ahead of the two young miners to perform the pre-shift examination of the area behind the longwall. Farley said he knew Burghduff hadn’t done the required examinations because when he and Stanley started to leave the mine that afternoon, “we walked to 100 Break, because there’s a date-up board at 102, and I seen that he didn’t make it to the date-up board.” Asked how he knew, Farley replied, “He didn’t sign his name.”8

Wherever he spent the day, Burghduff left Stanley and Farley without a multigas detector, which is required by MSHA regulation,9 as they traveled up the tailgate to the Bandytown fan, checking and repairing pumps.

Stanley said the only passable entry they could travel was the Number One entry on the tailgate, and that during the previous month to six weeks, they had had no telephone communication when they had been in that area because a line had been cut at some point and had not been repaired.10

Farley said he and Stanley went into chest-high water to make the repairs. He said he didn’t know how long the pumps had been down, only that the crew had been off on Saturday and Sunday “and when we came back to work Monday, they was down.”11

“Them pumps were in bad shape, and I was trying to get them back up and running,” Farley said.12 Stanley explained that the pumps would “gob up” and “we’d have to disassemble them, take them apart.”13

Farley said deep water collected – at times neckdeep – where the mine floor dipped down at an area of 88 break. The high water was an ongoing problem, according to Travis Nelson, another miner who was familiar with the area. Nelson testified that “we had a very bad problem with water” two or three weeks before the explosion. “We had to keep pumps constantly running so it didn’t roof out,” he said.14

In West Virginia, the Dangers are Double

Historically, West Virginia has been among the leading coal producing states in the nation. Unfortunately, the state’s coal miners have paid a high price for this production.

West Virginia coal mines have recorded the highest rates of fatal accidents and injuries in the country, and mines in southern West Virginia, where the Upper Big Branch mine is located, have been particularly deadly.

A study by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that during the period 1991 -1996 70 miners were killed on the job in southern West Virginia, resulting in 28 percent of all U.S. mining fatalities in an area that employs just 13 percent of the nation’s miners. A report prepared in 2001 for West Virginia Governor Bob Wise concluded that between 1991 and 2000, 25 percent of the country’s 458 coal mining fatalities – 116 deaths – occurred in southern West Virginia. Independent contractors accounted for nearly 30 percent of those fatalities.1

During the past 20 years, coal companies have increased the use of contractors, or contract workers, to augment their workforces. This practice has made it more difficult for federal and state governments to accurate assess and characterize a company’s safety performance. If contractors are killed or injured on the job, the death or injury is attributed to the contract company, not to the mine where the accident occurred. One of the victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster was a contractor, not a Massey employee. The death of Joshue Napper, 26, is recorded as a fatality for David Stanley Consultants, LLC, not Massey Energy.

Unfortunately, the trend of southern West Virginia mines accounting for a disproportionate share of fatalities has continued into the 21st century. The disaster at the Upper Big Branch offers yet more evidence that in southern West Virginia, “the dangers are double.”2

Members of the investigation teams that entered the mine after the explosion observed that UBB sloped downhill toward the back end of the mine, which made it natural for water to flow that way and to collect in swags or dips that had not been adequately graded. Danny “Joe” Ferrell, one of the miners who drove the entries heading back to where the Bandytown fan was installed, said his crews cut a lot of bottom to try to get the water to flow down to the Bandytown pump, where the fan was located. “We cut a lot of bottom, and it still didn’t run at it very good,” he said. “It flowed, but not good, no. They still had to put some more pumps in it to get it to go.”15

Farley said it was usually cold when he worked in that area, and he would wear long johns, three pairs of socks, a thermal shirt, a jacket, gloves and a beanie in addition to his chest waders.16

“But that day it was miserably hot,” he said. “I ended up taking – because we’ve got to put our waders on, and I ended up taking my long johns off. I mean, I stripped down to where I was just in my boxers. I mean, it was hot, hot.”17

Farley and Stanley managed to get only four of six pumps up and running because they lacked clamps and couplings to fix the other two. By the time they completed work on the fourth pump, it was 1:50 p.m. – the time they usually left the tailgate. They searched for Burghduff, and found him lying down at 92 break. “Whenever we went through the mandoor … he kind of bounced up,” Farley said, adding that Burghduff said he wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go ahead and leave the mine.18

Unfortunately, the accuracy of written records describing conditions encountered by the pump crew on April 5 and in the weeks leading up to the explosion are of concern. As a certified foreman, Burghduff was responsible for ensuring that the hand-held gas detector he used was calibrated properly so as to take accurate readings. His nickname, “Burghdog,” was on the device he used most often. Records from the mine indicate he had last calibrated the Burghdog-labeled detector on March 5, 2010. It was due to be calibrated again on April 5.

Burghduff testified that his device had been damaged a few times because it got wet.19 He said he would let it dry out. Sometimes it worked; other timeshe would have to borrow a spotter from mine foreman Everett Hager while his was being repaired.

Investigators downloaded data from the methane detectors used by Burghduff for the period of September 2009 through April 23, 2010. In the six weeks preceding the disaster, when he was supposed to be checking for hazardous conditions in the area leading back to the Bandytown fan, the “Burghdog” device was not turned on during at least 25 of his work shifts.20

The foreman’s anemometer readings taken in the Bandytown fan area also were questionable. Investigators questioned the lack of fluctuation in readings taken from February 16 through March 10. The velocity generated by the fan was approximately 400,000 cubic feet per minute. Yet Burghduff’s readings indicated less than one-tenth of one percent variation.21

This data raises doubt about the daily and weekly air readings and other data recorded by the crew foreman in the weeks leading up to the disaster. Accurate air readings and water levels in those key ventilation entries would provide a valuable history of conditions in a critical part of the mine in the days and weeks just prior to the explosion.

David Farley wasn’t the only person who noticed that something was different about the airflow on April 5.

The Thursday before the explosion, outby construction boss Mike Kiblinger had entered the mine with the intention of setting a head for a new mother drive at the point where coal from Headgate 22 dumps onto the seven north belt.22 As a construction crew cut a belt channel in the area, Kiblinger noted that the dust was blowing out of the mine. When he returned on Monday, the construction crew was cutting an overcast, and the dust was blowing into the mine, or inby, toward the longwall.23 This suggested to Kiblinger that a major ventilation change had taken place over the weekend.

Roof bolter Joshua Williams also noticed that the air was reversed on April 5 as he and his crew cut the overcast on the Ellis portal, the construction site where ventilation controls had been removed. The Thursday before, as they had cut the belt channel, the air was going out toward the Ellis punchout.24

“We thought it was going the right way, going out that way,” Williams said. “Because if it had been going the other way, it [dust] would have been going up towards the longwall.”25

On Monday, as the crew cut the overcast, the air was “all going inby, back up towards Ellis Switch and … toward the longwall,” he said.26

Williams said the crew was cutting between sets of doors; the inby set was closed, but the outby set was open. “That’s the way [mine manager] Wayne Persinger told us … how to do it,” Williams said.27

Joshua Massey, a roof bolter with the swing shift on Headgate 22, saw doors propped open by cinderblocks in the area where the construction work was taking place. As he traveled to Headgate 22, Massey observed that as the crew cut the belt channel, “instead of eating the dust from the belt cutting the sandstone, they was leaving doors open for the dust to go straight out the drift mouth. We’d come out a couple times, and they’d still be propped open with cinderblocks and whatever they could find to hold the doors open.”28

Williams said he and his roof-bolting partner told foreman Bobby Baker about the air reversal. “He didn’t say nothing,” Williams said. “He just walked away. Me and the other bolt man told him, and he just – he said, ‘Well, I’ll figure it out.’” Williams said he took that to mean that Baker would check for open doors, but he never heard back from the foreman.29

When the crew quit cutting, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2:45 p.m., Williams said the dust was light, the air “foggy-looking.” Crew members left about 2:55 p.m. with the air still going the wrong way.30

Scott Halstead, who had assumed responsibility for the longwall belt on March 1,31 spent ten or 15 minutes at the face of the longwall on April 5, enough time to notice a fluctuation in the air.32 “I mean, it’d pick up and it would die, then pick up and die,” Halstead said. He assumed the air fluctuation was due to high water in the area going up toward the Bandytown fan because if the pumps in the top end of the longwall near the fan were not maintained, “it would cause the air to fluctuate” and “when they [management] had problems [with the air], that’s where they’d run to.”33

April 5 was a frustrating day for the longwall crew. One of purchasing agent (and sometimes dispatcher) Greg Clay’s responsibilities was to receive longwall production reports every 30 minutes between 7:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and forward them to UBB President Chris Blanchard, Vice President Jason Whitehead and Lisa Williams, executive secretary at Marfork Coal.34 Lisa Williams then would send the information to Chris Adkins, Chief Operating Officer, and Don Blankenship, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, at Massey Energy. At approximately 10:00 a.m. Clay received a call that production was down because a hinge pin on the ranging arm of the shearer had come loose.35

“They didn’t run nothing that day hardly,” Clay said. “They kept on having the same problem. What it was, they was going to change the hinge pin to another style on the midnight shift that night, so it was run and then it went down, then it come back up, then it went back down.”36

The shearer is a large, complex piece of machinery used to cut coal from the face of the longwall. The 19 Upper Big Branch mine used a Joy 7LS shearer, which weighs in excess of 90 tons and costs in the neighborhood of $3.4 million. This type of longwall system is capable of producing 2,300 tons of coal an hour.37 The shearer has a main body that houses electrical functions; units that move the cutting edge along the face; and pumping units to power hydraulic and water functions. Each end of the main body is fitted with a ranging arm that moves up and down and contains electrical motors, which transfer power through a series of gears to cutting drums mounted onto the arms.

Depending on the severity of the problem, repairs to a shearer can take hours. On the morning of April 5, the shearer had made two passes on the longwall when crew members reported that production was down because of problems with the “B-Loc” on one of the ranging arms. The “B-Loc” is a retainer for a hinge pin that holds the ranging arm in place.

Robert Hale, the third shift longwall maintenance supervisor, said he met the dayshift longwall crew coming into the mine at about 6:35 a.m. or 6:40 a.m. as he and his crew were exiting. The maintenance crew had returned to the mine on Easter Sunday evening. Their normal tasks included greasing the shearer, changing bits, checking oil on motors and drives, repairing anything that is damaged or broken. The goal is to have all the machinery serviced and ready for the day shift to begin production. On April 4, the task list for the hoot owl crew assigned to the longwall included adding flights to the face chain because some of them were worn and replacing a cowl blade on the shearer because the arm was broken. The crew had spent most of the night replacing the cowl blade, Hale said, but he added that the shearer was “up and running” when they left the mine.38

By Hale’s estimates, the longwall should have started producing before 7:00 a.m. Hale said longwall superintendent Jack Roles later told him production was down for about three hours because of continuing problems with the ranging arm pin.39

Roles spoke to several people about the problem on the longwall that day. Bobby Goss, longwall specialist for Massey Coal Services, said Roles told him that he had been on the face during the day and that the wall was down most of the day.40 David Shears, a utility man on the longwall, said Roles told him the same thing.41

Longwall chief electrician Danny Laverty said the wall “got started producing that morning,”42 but he got a call from headgate operator Rex Mullins about 10:00 a.m. or 10:30 a.m. about the trouble with the hinge pin.43 “Then they were down the biggest part of the day after that,” he said.44

“I spoke to him at different times through the day, just asked him to give me some kind of update,” Laverty said of Mullins. He said Mullins told him that the pin “was not wanting to line up, and that’s really the only thing that I ever found out about it”45 until the headgate operator called back sometime between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to tell him the longwall was running.”46

Clay said Mullins called in a production report at 2:30 p.m., saying the crew was still having problems with the hinge pin and estimating it would be another ten minutes before they would be able to start up again. At 2:42 p.m., Mullins called out that production had resumed, Clay said.47

Maintenance foreman Thomas Sheets, who with Virgil Bowman, was wiring the new mother drive at Headgate 22, said he and Bowman exited the mine under the mother drive belt somewhere between 2:00 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. Sheets said he noted that production was down, because “it is our job to know if the belts are running or not.”

“Somewhere between 2:00 and 2:15, the longwall belt was not running … I do know after, after the fact, that I was told that the longwall started at 2:30,” Sheets said, referring to a conversation he had later that evening with purchasing agent Clay.48

Following the explosion, the shearer was found at the tail with four feet, four inches of travel remaining, suggesting that this is where it was at the time of the blast. The cowls on each drum were found flipped to the headgate side, indicating that the shearer was traveling toward the tail. The electrical breaker to the shearer, located at the headgate, was found “knocked,” meaning that the power to the shearer had been manually disconnected. The removal of power in this manner can only be done by someone at the headgate. A person must both push in a button and pull a lever. The disconnect has a visible “off” position. The water to the longwall face also was turned off at the headgate.

Fireboss Michael Elswick, who had been employed at UBB only four days, was in the mine for the dayshift on April 5 because he had agreed to switch shifts with another miner, according to information provided to the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel. At 2:30 p.m., Elswick called his final safety report to Scott Halstead.49 In it, he reported that conveyor belts needed to be cleaned and rock dusted.50

Elswick’s daughter, Jami Cash, told The Charleston Gazette that Halstead later told her that her father had complained of a strange burning sensation in his eyes and told Halstead he couldn’t see. “That’s when 20 Scott Halstead said he was on his way in to get him,” Cash told The Gazette.51 In interviews with investigators, Halstead said he did not remember Elswick either reporting hazardous conditions or complaining of burning eyes.52

Brian “Hammer” Collins, the second shift foreman for Tailgate 22, arrived at the mine at about 2:15 p.m. and shortly thereafter took a pre-shift call from Steve Harrah. Harrah, the Tailgate 22 dayshift boss who was also known as “Head,” liked to joke and give him a hard time, Collins said.53

“He called out. I said, ‘Yeah, Head,’” Collins recalled. “He said, ‘How are you doing, son?’ I said, ‘I’m doing all right.’ I said, ‘You ain’t my daddy, though.’ I never will forget that. He said, ‘Anyway, son, here’s what you got. He gave me the pre-shift. I think he was calling me from 78 Break switch. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m on my way out … I’ll see you here shortly … and tell you what we got.’”54

At about 3:00 p.m., as dispatcher Adam Jenkins was directing traffic in and out of the mine, he received a call from James Woods from the Tailgate 22 crew. Woods, who was operating a mantrip at 78 break, asked for a road outside. Shortly thereafter, men from the UBB construction crew called, also asking for the road. Jenkins told them he had given the road to the man he called “Woodsey” and told the construction crew to call him from Ellis Switch.55

A couple of minutes later, “that’s when it happened,” Jenkins said. “All the dust started, just a white smoke started pouring out the portals, and it sounded like thunder. It was constant. And I didn’t know what happened. And [mine superintendent] Gary May, he said, ‘Oh, Lord … something bad’s happened.’ He said to get ahold of everybody and tell them to get outside now. And I hollered and hollered and hollered for over a half hour.”56

After about 15 minutes, workers on the barrier section responded, and Jenkins told them to get out of the mine. “And the … construction crew, they never made it to the Ellis Switch. I guess the force in the mantrip, they had went back out the other side. They went out Ellis side instead of coming all the way up to our portal [the UBB portal].”57

The dispatcher continued to try to reach men inside the mine. “I was still hollering when [Massey Energy Chief Operating Officer] Chris Adkins showed up in his helicopter,” Jenkins said. “When he come upstairs, I was still hollering on the phone. And I hollered and hollered and hollered just, you know, praying and hoping that somebody would answer me, and it never happened.”58

1 Danny Ferrell testimony, p. 22
2 Gene Martin testimony, p. 57
3 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 42
4 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 43
5 David Farley testimony, p. 22
6 David Farley testimony, p. 24
7 David Farley testimony, p. 24
8 David Farley testimony, p. 25
9 MSHA 30 CFR 75.1714.7
10 Jason Stanley testimony, p. 55
11 David Farley testimony, p. 20
12 David Farley testimony, p. 22
13 Jason Stanley testimony, p. 85
14 Travis Nelson testimony, p. 41
15 Danny “Joe” Ferrell testimony, p. 29
16 David Farley testimony, p. 23
17 David Farley testimony, p. 23
18 David Farley testimony, p. 26
19 Jeremy Burghduff testimony, April 1, 2011, p. 21, p. 39
20 Jeremy Burghduff testimony, April 1, 2011, p. 75
21 Jeremy Burghduff testimony, September 2, 2010, p. 84
22 Michael Kiblinger testimony, p. 23
23 Michael Kiblinger testimony, p. 22, p. 80
24 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 17
25 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 18
26 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 21
27 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 59
28 Joshua Massey testimony, p. 21
29 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 71
30 Joshua Williams testimony, p. 63
31 Scott Halstead testimony, p. 25
32 Scott Halstead testimony, p. 45
33 Scott Halstead testimony, p. 60
34 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 21
35 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 24
36 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 27
37 Joy website, acquired February 10, 2011
38 Robert Hale testimony, p. 48
39 Robert Hale testimony, p. 46
40 Bobby Goss testimony, p. 23
41 David Shears testimony, p. 59
42 Danny Laverty testimony, p. 40
43 Danny Laverty testimony, p. 53
44 Danny Laverty testimony, p. 40
45 Danny Laverty testimony, p. 53
46 Danny Laverty testimony, p. 56
47 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 27
48 Thomas Sheets testimony, p. 33
49 Scott Halstead testimony, p. 25
50 Preshift examination of belt conveyors, phoned outside by Mike Elswick, received by Scott Halstead, April 5, 2010, 2:30 p.m.
51 Ward, Ken, Jr., and Harki, Gary A., “UBB fireboss reported burning eyes prior to blast, family says,” The Charleston Gazette, Sept. 16, 2010
52 Scott Halstead testimony, p. 32
53 Brian Collins testimony, p. 68
54 Brian Collins testimony, p. 67
55 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 43
56 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 44
57 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 44
58 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 68


MEN AND MANAGEMENT:

Why miners wouldn’t leave the longwall unless the situation was dire

The Upper Big Branch miners tolerated haphazard planning and poor engineering to produce coal. In addition, they had to deal with ineffective upper management on a daily basis. The miners understood the significant financial investment needed to operate a longwall. If the UBB miners wanted to keep their jobs they had to produce coal. Leaving the longwall face unattended was not an option unless it was quitting time or an emergency.

The physical evidence compiled and examined by investigators tells us that something dire happened on the longwall in the moments before the explosion. The shearer operators and two other victims (Joel Price, Gary Quarles, Christopher Bell and Dillard Persinger) were found about two-thirds of the way down the longwall face. These men must have seen something ominous and out of the ordinary.

The decision to either open a new longwall mine or install a longwall system in an existing mine is an expensive decision. The capital investment can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a new mine, or $40 to $50 million dollars for an existing mine. It is not uncommon for a large longwall system to be capable of producing thousands of tons per hour. Given today’s pricing for metallurgical coal of $200 to $300 per ton, an operator is in a position to generate huge revenue.

The pressures to produce coal and control costs exist at all mines; however, the pressure is much moreintense at longwall mines. The magnitude of the financial investment and the opportunity to achieve the highest levels of profitability increases the pressure on everyone employed at the mine. From the mine’s top management to the red hat trainee, everyone knows that when the longwall is down, it costs the company money.

Longwall crews are generally comprised of workers who have been at the mine for a while and have several years of experience. It is not uncommon to find a promising young worker placed on the longwall crew to learn from the experienced men. Once crews are established, they often stay together for years. This is important to management because the crews develop a close relationship and an efficiency that leads to high production levels.

Miners who work at longwall mines know that the longwall is the heart of the operation. They take great pride in the number of passes they make on the longwall each shift, and a spirit of competiveness can be seen throughout the operation.

The longwall at Upper Big Branch had returned to the mine for the current panel after having been at the Logan’s Fork Mine for about two years. The Tailgate 1 North section was originally supposed to be a room and pillar section; the coal blocks were not designed with a longwall in mind. Somewhere along the way, a decision was made to move the longwall from Logan’s Fork and use it at UBB starting with Headgate 1 North. The Headgate 22 section would be developed for the next longwall panel and mining would progress from there. What wasn’t anticipated were bad top and bad ribs, along with water in the headgate entries. This made the headgate side of the current longwall unavailable for use as the tailgate side of the next longwall. This forced UBB management to start up the Tailgate 22 section.

Everyone knew that the development of the next longwall panel was behind schedule. Management decided to prepare yet another area of the mine where they could move the longwall while the Tailgate 22 section was completed, but this, too, was behind schedule. When it was ready, it would be a very short panel so it would provide only a very brief home for the longwall.

The pressure was on at Upper Big Branch. Everyone knew it and felt it. Knowing that every pass taken on the longwall would bring it that much closer to finishing before it had a place to move to did not deter the efforts of the longwall crews. They work extra hard at trying to mine more coal and avoid such circumstances. Each crew and every member of a crew take great pride in doing their part in bringing success to the mine. They know that if the equipment is not running, coal is not being produced.

Longwall crews do not leave the face area unless it is quitting time or there is an emergency. The longwall face at Upper Big Branch was 1,000 feet wide with 176 shield bases for a miner to step over. Walking through this narrow space and having to duck in the low areas means a miner would have to have a good reason to leave the longwall face.

Our investigation tells us that these men witnessed something ominous and took steps to try to avert a disaster. Regrettably, they were not able to do so.


Back to Table of Conents