The aftermath of a disaster
As Tim Blake put on his rescuer and wiped the dust from his cap light, he could see only as far as his hand in front of him. Debris was still flying about him, and he heard a terrible gurgling sound. “It was my buddy beside of me, the 23-year-old boy,” he said.“He couldn’t get his rescuer on. There was still stuff, you know, coming by, and I reached over and shook my buddy, tried to get him awake. No … nothing.”1
Blake grabbed the young miner, Jason Atkins, and pulled him from the mantrip, lay him down, took his rescuer off and put it back on, “trying to do something.” He then turned to James Woods, who was lying out of the trip. “I done his rescuer the same way, donned his rescuer. Then I went to the next man [Deward Scott]. I couldn’t find his rescuer because he carried it on a belt. He just laid it up on the mantrip, and it blew away when all this happened. I couldn’t find his.”2
Benny Willingham was still in the mantrip. “I worked with him a few minutes, put his rescuer on him, tried to give him some chance, you know. Then I went to the next man, which was Robert Clark. Done the same thing for him, put his rescuer on him, worked with him a minute or two. Went to Bill [Lynch], and he was laying face down. I had to grab him and jerk him up and pull him over, put his rescuer on him. All of these guys, you know, I was feeling for pulse. They all had pulse, you know, so they was still alive.”3
Blake found Carl Acord positioned half in and half out of the mantrip. Describing his efforts to assist Acord, who despite his nickname of PeeWee was a large man, Blake said, “I had to manhandle him, get him down, lay him flat down. I put his rescuer on him. I went to the next man, which was the boss [Steve Harrah], and he was laying face down,” Blake continued. “I had to roll him over, put his rescuer on him.” By that time, Blake said even though he was wearing a rescuer, “I was fighting to breathe myself.”4
As the air cleared a bit, Blake was able to see his watch. It was about three minutes to four. He knew his own rescuer, which contained an hour of air, was ready to expire. “So I went around to each man again, felt for a pulse. Everybody had a pulse but one man. I couldn’t find no pulse on him. That’s the man I couldn’t find a rescuer.”
After doing what he could for his fellow crew members, Blake then had to leave them. “That was the hardest thing I ever done,” he said.5
Blake had walked about 1,000 to 2,000 feet6 when help arrived. “I don’t know how many breaks I walked. I’d walked I’d say at least ten to 20 breaks, saw a mantrip coming, so I just sat down on a timber,” he said. “I heard somebody holler, ‘There’s a man walking,’ and so I sat there and waited on them.”7
Causes of Death
The bodies of the 29 victims of the UpperBig Branch Mine explosion were found in six different locations throughout the mine. By combining the results of autopsies performed by the West Virginia Medical Examiner1 with information about where the victims were found, we could determine the following:
Of the 29 men killed, 19 died as result of carbon monoxide intoxication, and the remaining ten died as a result of injuries suffered in the explosion.
- Seven victims in a mantrip at 78 break, heading out of the mine perished as a result of carbon monoxide intoxication. Two men on this mantrip survived the explosion.
- One victim, whose body was located near the 6 North Belt, died as a result of injuries suffered in the explosion.
- Four victims found on Headgate 2 North outside the longwall panel, were victims of carbon monoxide intoxication. Contributory blast injuries were also present on these victims.
- Eight victims were located in the longwall area. Three died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, with contributory injuries caused by the blast. Five victims died from injuries sustained in the explosion, with two of the five also having contributory carbon monoxide intoxication.
- Six victims were found on a mantrip in the Headgate 22 area of the mine. Five of the six were victims of carbon monoxide intoxication. The sixth died as a result of injuries suffered in the explosion, with contributory carbon monoxide intoxication.
- Three victims were located on Headgate 22, away from the mantrip and in by the section. Their deaths were attributed to injuries sustained in the blast.
1 The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services, Medical Examiner.
The men who found Tim Blake were Performance Coal Company President Chris Blanchard and other UBB management officials who had rushed into the mine shortly after the air slowed and the dust stopped blowing out of the mine’s portals. Blake took off his rescuer. “Of course, it was so hot you couldn’t touch it,” he said.8 “And they asked me what happened. I told them the story.”9
Blanchard had been at his Marfork office when he received a call from Greg Clay shortly after 3:00 p.m. telling him about what had occurred at UBB. Over the next several minutes, Blanchard readied a group of Performance officials to go underground. This group, which included Vice President of Operations Jason Whitehead, Longwall Coordinator Jack Roles, Mine Superintendent Everett Hager, Section Foreman Patrick Hilbert and Mine Manager Wayne Persinger loaded onto a mantrip and entered the mine through the Ellis Portal sometime between 3:20 and 3:25 p.m.
Before entering the mine, Blanchard apparently recalled that state and federal law requires quick notification of regulatory agencies in the event of an accident. He called Jonah Bowles, director of safety at Massey’s Marfork Coal, and directed him to call MSHA and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.
Bowles called MSHA’s hotline at 3:30 p.m. and reported a “hazardous inundation of carbon monoxide gas” had occurred at 3:27 p.m.10 By this time, it can be reasonably surmised that officials on site at UBB knew that they had a situation more serious than had been reported. The hotline notified MSHA’s Mt. Hope office at 3:42 p.m.
Bowles’s call to the West Virginia Mine and Industry Accident hotline (Homeland Security) came in at 3:39 p.m. When asked the time of the incident, Bowles replied, “It was reported at 3:27.” He said with certainty “it is an air reversal on the beltlines” and reported “CO 50 to 100 PPM.” Asked if there were any injuries, he responded, “No, the mines is being evacuated at this time.”11
Blanchard apparently did not call his boss, Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins, who was at the Massey Energy office in Julian. Bowles said Adkins called him a short time later to ask what was going on at UBB.12 Clay said he did not know how Adkins or Massey CEO Don Blankenship were made aware of the situation.
Shortly after Blanchard’s group entered the Ellis Portal, Mine Superintendent Gary May ran into the mine on foot through the UBB portal. Dispatcher Adam Jenkins placed the time at approximately 3:30 p.m.13
Safety Director James Walker, who had been in the upstairs office at UBB when the explosion occurred, said he, like Greg Clay, knew something was wrong when he heard a change in the sound of the fan. He looked at the fan and it was “bogging down like it was going into a stall air reversal.” Walker then saw dust or smoke coming out of the track entry.14
Acting on instinct, Walker said he quickly put his gear back on and started underground with Gary May. At that point he realized he didn’t have his gas detector and went back to get it. By the time Walker returned, May had already entered the mine. Walker, with Safety Director Berman Cornett, traveled into the mine on foot. Once inside, they boarded a mantrip driven by Mine Foreman Rick Foster.15 Jenkins estimated this group entered the mine some 12 to 15 minutes after May.16 They caught up with May, who was still alone, at Ellis Switch.17
During this time Chris Adkins arrived at Upper Big Branch by helicopter, accompanied by Elizabeth Chamberlin, Massey’s vice president for safety. The two went to the office which would serve as a command center, and Adkins took over telephone communications with those officials who were underground.
At approximately 3:30 p.m., members of Massey’s Southern West Virginia Mine Rescue Team returned to the Performance Coal Company safety training office after spending the day at another Massey operation, the Parker Peerless mine in Raleigh County. Mark Bolen, a member of the team, said his supervisor, Rob Asbury, alerted him “there had been an event at UBB.” They got the team trailer and van ready and went immediately to the Ellis Portal.18
Team member Jim Aurednik, who was on vacation at his home in Beckley, received a call from Asbury telling him to report to the mine as quickly as possible. “I didn’t even know there was an explosion at the time I received the call,” Aurednik said.19
When he arrived at the mine at approximately 4:00 p.m., Aurednik said there were no ambulances on site, and he, Asbury and Bolen were the only trained mine rescue personnel on the scene. Bolen had prepped their mine rescue apparatus so that Asbury and Aurednik were able to proceed underground sometime after 4:00 p.m.20
Foreman Pat Hilbert, who was driving the mantrip with Blanchard’s crew, said they had to stop at the first overcast to remove block from the track. “We didn’t know what we had, so we was just trying to be careful and watch exactly everything as we went,” he said.21
They cleared the block from the track and proceeded slowly to Ellis Switch, occasionally stopping to remove block or debris from the track. “At 42 Break we seen a single light walking towards us, “ Hilbert said. It was Tim Blake, who had walked from where he left his crew.22
“Chris Blanchard then asked Timmy what was going on, what has happened, you know, what have we got, and that’s when I first learned that we had an explosion,” Hilbert said.23
Blanchard’s crew reached Blake somewhere between 4:00 p.m. and 4:05 p.m.24 “He sat down in front of the mantrip, and he told us that his whole crew was down about 20 breaks away,” Hilbert said. “He said that he stayed with them as long as he could, put rescuers on them and tried to keep them breathing until he knew he had to get some help. He said he tried to call on the radio. He pushed the button on the tracking device to try to get help, and nobody ever came. He said he was with them about 45 minutes.”25
Since Hilbert was an EMT, Blanchard left him with Blake while the rest of the team went on foot to find the other members of the Tailgate 22 crew.26 “So I’m sitting there with Timmy, and Timmy said, ‘That’s all my friends,’” Hilbert recalled. “I said, ‘I know, Timmy, mine, too.’ He said, ‘What can we do?’ I said, ‘Timmy, all we can do is pray.’”
The two men paused in the darkness of the mine and said a prayer for their fallen friends and co-workers.27
About ten minutes later, UBB longwall coordinator Jack Roles ran back and told Hilbert the crew needed the mantrip and that he, Roles, would stay with Blake. As Hilbert drove the mantrip to between 66 and 67 Break on Five North belt, he started seeing lights. He also saw a flash from Harrah’s gas detector and looked down at his own. The air was clear.28
“Everything was good, so I kept going,” he said. “And then I pulled into just all of them laying there beside the track. And the next thing I know we was loading them up and taking them out. And it took probably three or four minutes to load them up.”29
Hilbert and the others placed the men, some dead, some still responsive, into two mantrips – the one Hilbert had driven into the mine and the one the stricken miners had been riding as they exited the mine.
“We put four in a mantrip with me,” Hilbert said, “which was the boss, Steve Harrah; James Woods, the electrician; Bill Lynch and Carl Acord … and they told me to go on. Wayne Persinger got in with me and was working with Woodsey because he was still responsive.”30
Hilbert began to exit the mine at approximately 4:30 p.m. and continued two or three breaks when he saw Gary May and Berman Cornett walking toward him. Persinger told Hilbert to stop and let Cornett get in to help Lynch and Gary May to help Harrah, who was still responsive.
“I could hear Wayne working with Woodsey,” he said. “I could hear Gary May talking to … Steve. But, then all of a sudden, I hear something strange. I thought I heard Steve moan. I turned around and that’s when I guess we lost him because Gary May started CPR on him then.”31
In the meantime, the crew on a second mantrip spotted Jack Roles and Tim Blake at 47 Break. James Walker said Blake was “kind of hysterical” and “covered with soot.” Blake told them the explosion “felt like a force of air.”32
Walker estimates that it was sometime after 4:00 p.m. that he heard someone shout, “Get on the mantrip, we’ve got to get out of here.” Blake, Roles and Walker boarded this mantrip, driven by Foster.33
The second mantrip “pulled out right behind us,” said Hilbert, whose mantrip reached the surface before 5:00 p.m.34
Everett Hager, driving the mantrip in which the Tailgate 22 crew members were riding when they were stricken, exited the mine behind Hilbert. Hager’s mantrip transported Jason Atkins, Benny Willingham, Robert Clark and Deward Scott.35
Hilbert said he thought there was only one ambulance crew at the scene at that time.36 Jim Hodges, chief of the Whitesville Fire and Emergency Rescue Services Department, said his department was not notified until 4:22 p.m. An ambulance was immediately dispatched to UBB, arriving at the mine at 4:30 p.m.37 When the mantrip in which James Woods was riding arrived on the surface, Woods was immediately loaded into the ambulance. Blake also opted to go to the hospital to be evaluated.38
Asbury, and Aurednik, had started underground with their rescue gear at about 4:00 p.m., but backed out of the mine when they saw headlights of the exiting mantrips. They helped remove the miners from the mantrip driven by Foster and began administering CPR to some of them.39
Greg Clay said Blanchard and the other officials who entered the mine were headed to the longwall. “When they walked up on the mantrip where the guys – where the deceased was, they called out and that’s whenever they told me to call for ambulances,” Clay recalled. “Rick Foster had called out and said there’s bodies everywhere.”40
Clay believes that as the stricken miners were brought to the surface, Blanchard and Whitehead went deeper into the mine, making it as far as the longwall. “They didn’t go to the miners sections,” Clay said. “They was up on the longwall.”41
Clay said that Blanchard and his crew “found more bodies, and they was experiencing some gas” and “that’s when Chris Adkins told them, he said, ‘Come on out, don’t be a hero, come on outside.’”42
After they did what they could do to help victims on the surface, Asbury and Aurednik, along with Bolen, put their mine rescue equipment back on a mantrip and once more proceeded underground. By this time they had learned that Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead were in the mine. “We knew that these two gentlemen, under the influence of adrenaline … might not realize the danger they were putting their self in without apparatus, so we were looking for them,” Bolen said.43
When the three trained mine rescue team members reached the 78 break, they saw Blanchard and Whitehead traveling toward them. Blanchard and Whitehead reporting seeing “a lot of CO when they went up the tail side [of the longwall] and that they had seen a couple of victims on the longwall track,” Aurednik said.44
Bolen reported to Chris Adkins that Blanchard and Whitehead were okay. The command center notes place this report at about 8:00 p.m., near the time that other mine rescue personnel had begun to assemble at the fresh air base at 78 break.
Blanchard and Whitehead, who were not trained mine rescuers, were underground unsupervised for about four hours following the explosion. They remained underground with the mine rescue teams until rescue operations were halted at about 12:45 a.m. because of dangerous conditions in the mine. All personnel involved in the rescue exited the mine by about 2:30 a.m.
Massey later issued a statement asserting that Blanchard and Whitehead “risked their lives to save fellow coal miners, including one of the injured coal miners who survived the explosion with their assistance. These rescue efforts were their one and only objective.”45
Mark Moreland, an attorney who represents families of two of the miners killed in the disaster, took exception with the Massey response, charging in a letter to MSHA that the actions by Blanchard and Whitehead “impugned the credibility of physical evidence.”46
After his own dramatic exit from the mine, Brent Racer stood outside the portal. Since he was an EMT, Racer felt he should stay to see if he could offer assistance to those being brought out of the mine.47 As they arrived outside, Racer began administering CPR and hooked up oxygen bottles.48
“Some more paramedics arrived and then that’s when they – the one guy kept coming around and he would declare them if they were dead or not, which almost every single one of them that they brought out was dead,” Racer recalled. “It’s still hard to look at that picture in the back of my head ... Some things still remind me of it when I’m underground now.”49
Hilbert said seven victims were pronounced dead at the scene and “we moved them over and covered them up.”50
1 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 42
2 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 42
3 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 42
4 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 43
5 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 44
6 Times are estimates based on investigators’ travel.
7 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 44
8 The SCSR generates a chemical reaction to produce oxygen and heat is a byproduct.
9 Timothy Blake testimony, p. 44
10 MSHA escalation report #1-73921756
11 WV Mine Industrial Rapid Response Line, audio recording, April 5, 2010
12 Jonah Bowles testimony, p. 37
13 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 61
14 James Walker testimony, p. 56
15 James Walker testimony, p. 58
16 Adam Jenkins testimony, p. 48
17 James Walker testimony, p. 59
18 Mark Bolen testimony, p. 17
19 Jim Aurednik testimony, p 22
20 Jim Aurednik testimony, p. 24
21 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 60
22 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 60
23 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 61
24 Times are estimates based on witness testimony and investigators’ travel.
25 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 61
26 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 61
27 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 62
28 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 62
29 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 63
30 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 63
31 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 63
32 James Walker testimony, p. 60
33 James Walker testimony, p. 62
34 Times are estimates based on memory of witnesses and investigators’ travel time.
35 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 109
36 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 64
37 Personal communication with Jim Hodges, Whitesville Fire and Rescue
38 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 64
39 Jim Aurednik testimony, p. 24
40 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 50
41 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 54
42 Gregory Clay testimony, p. 53
43 Mark Bolen testimony, p. 20
44 Jim Aurednik testimony, p. 31
45 National Public Radio, “Massey Energy’s Entire Response to NPR’s Inquiry,” September 2, 2010
46 Ward, Ken, Jr., “Massey’s access to mine after blast questioned,” The Charleston Gazette, Sept. 3, 2010
47 Brent Racer testimony, p. 102
48 Brent Racer testimony, p. 103
49 Brent Racer testimony, p. 103
50 Patrick Hilbert testimony, p. 67
Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis and the UBB miners
Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP), also called black lung disease, develops when respirable coal mine dust is inhaled and deposits in the lungs. It is a chronic, fibrotic, and irreversible disease that robs miners of their breath and life. CWP is wholly preventable with diligent use of dust control measures including proper ventilation, water sprays and dust collectors.
Autopsies of the 29 men who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch explosion were performed by the West Virginia Medical Examiner.1 Lung examinations, necessary to determine the presence or absence of CWP is a specialized review, requiring physicians with expertise, additional training and practice. At our request a recognized expert in occupational diseases and with experience in lung examinations of this sort reviewed the autopsy reports and determined the presence or absence of CWP.2
Of the 29 victims, five did not have sufficient lung tissue available to make a determination relating to CWP: two due to massive injury and three due to autolysis.3 The remaining 24 victims had sufficient tissue for examination.
Seventeen of the 24 victims’ autopsies (or 71 percent) had CWP. This compares with the national prevalence rate for CWP among active underground miners in the U.S. is 3.2 percent, and the rate in West Virginia is 7.6 percent.4 The ages of the UBB victims with CWP ranged from 25 to 61 years.
Of the seven not identified as having CWP, four had what was characterized as “anthracosis” on their autopsy report. This term is often used in lieu of the term pneumoconiosis, or may refer to a black pigment deposition without the fibrosis and other characteristics needed to make a firm diagnosis of pneumoconiosis. Consequently, it is possible that upon further expert review, these four miners could have had pneumoconiosis. Three of the 24 victims had no pneumoconiosis or anthracosis noted.
Of the 17 UBB victims with CWP, five of them had less than 10 years of experience as coal miners, while nine had more than 30 years of mining experience. At least four of the 17 worked almost exclusively at UBB. All but one of the 17 victims with CWP began working in the mines after the 2.0 milligram coal mine dust limit was put in affect in 1973. This was an exposure limit that was believed at the time sufficient to prevent black lung disease. It has since been determined ineffective to protecting miners’ health.5
The victims at UBB constitute a random sample of miners. The fact that 71 percent of them show evidence of CWP is an alarming finding given the ages and work history of these men.
1 The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services, Medical Examiner.
2 Robert Cohen, MD, F.C.C.P., Director Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Cook County Health and Hospitals System; Chairman, Division of Pulmonary Medicine/Critical Care, Stroger Hospital of Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, conducted a confidential review of the UBB victims’ autopsies.
3 The destruction of cells through the action of its own enzymes.
4 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Table 2-12. CWXSP: Number and percentage of examined employees at underground coal mines with CWP (ILO category 1/0+) by tenure, 1970-2006. The Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance Report, 2007. Publication No. 2008-143, September 2008; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Pneumoconiosis Prevalence Among Working Coal Miners Examined in Federal Chest Radiograph Surveillance Programs: United States, 1996—2002. April 18, 2003, 52(15); 336-340.
5 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Respirable Coal Mine Dust, September 1995; US Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration. Proposed rule on lowering miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust including continuous personal dust monitors, 75 Federal Register 64412, October 19, 2010.