Mining tragedy grows in W.Va.

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
MELVILLE, W.Va. - During their desperate, 40-plus-hour search for two coal miners trapped by fire, rescue crews reported a few glimmers of hope, the occasional pocket of breathable air. But the broiling, smoke-choked tunnels were always filled with reasons to suspect the worst.
They searched miles of tunnels at the Alma No. 1 mine, but were shut off from areas intensely hot from a conveyor-belt fire. They drilled into a mine shaft and lowered a camera and microphone, but heard nothing.
It took more than a day and a half battling the flames to contain the fire enough to find the bodies of Don I. Bragg and Ellery Hatfield on Saturday, bringing to 14 the number of West Virginia miners killed on the job in less than a month.
"We have two brave miners that have perished," Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters.
The miners became separated Thursday evening as their 12-member crew tried to escape a conveyor belt fire at Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston. The rest of the crew and nine other miners working in a different section of the mine escaped unharmed.
Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Training and Safety, said it appeared the two missing miners had made a "valiant effort" to escape, but were blocked by high temperatures and thick smoke.
Saturday's deaths raised to 14 the number of West Virginia miners killed on the job since Jan. 2. Earlier this month, 12 miners died as a result of an explosion at the Sago Mine, more than 180 miles away on the northern side of the state. The sole survivor of that accident remained hospitalized in a light coma Saturday.
The governor pledged to introduce legislation Monday dealing with rapid responses in emergencies, electronic tracking technology and reserve oxygen stations for underground miners.
"These two men who perished in this mine, the 12 men who perished in the Sago Mine, I can only say to each of those families . . . that they have not died in vain," Manchin said.
He planned to travel to Washington on Tuesday to discuss the proposals with the state's congressional delegation, hoping they will seek changes on the federal level.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said Congress must give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration the tools to operate effectively, and may have to increase its budget.
"It's unfortunate that every coal mine health and safety law on the books is written with the blood of coal miners," Rahall said.
The federal Mine Health and Safety Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion in Farmington that killed 78 miners, including Manchin's uncle.
The governor and Sen. Jay Rockefeller informed families of the deaths at a church before announcing them publicly, along with Don Blankenship, chairman of Aracoma's owner, Massey Energy.
Massey opened the mine in 1999, and these are its first fatalities. The company released a statement Saturday evening, saying it was saddened by the miners' deaths and that the company will now focus on comforting the families.
Rescue workers on the surface of the Aracoma mine got no response Saturday morning when they drilled a 200-foot hole into a mine shaft in an effort to contact the missing miners. Workers pounded on a steel drill bit but heard nothing from below, and a camera and a microphone lowered into the hole detected no sign of them.
Rescue efforts were hampered by intense heat and smoke that cut visibility to 2 to 3 feet in some parts of the mine. Teams were able to get into four tunnels, each about four miles long, but they could not get beyond the burning conveyor belt. Heat from the fire had also caused the roof of the mine to deteriorate.
Bragg, 33, and Hatfield, 47, were husbands and fathers with more than a decade of mining experience and had worked in the Alma mine for five years.
"It's just rough. He's really going to be missed," said Kevin Walls, a nephew of Hatfield's. "He was just a good man. He would do anything to help anybody."
The bodies were to be sent to a medical examiner's office in Charleston.
The two men had been equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce about an hour's worth of air.
Jimmy Marcum, a 54-year-old retired miner from Delbarton, said better equipment is needed to protect miners.
"I mean, they can send a man to the moon but they can't make a (oxygen canister) that will last at least 16 hours. . . . That's what they need to do," Marcum said.
Officials emphasized that there were key differences between the Alma Mine fire and the Jan 2. Sago Mine explosion. For one, the carbon monoxide levels, while still higher than normal in the Alma Mine, were not as severe, Conaway said.
Also, the ventilation system continued to work at the Alma Mine and no methane was detected coming out, said Robert Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary for MSHA.
That enabled rescuers to get into the mine more quickly. The gases at the Sago Mine and damage to the ventilation system had prevented investigators from entering the mine until Saturday.
It will likely be another week before they can reach the deepest parts of the mine and begin the physical investigation into what caused the explosion, said Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, which owns Sago.
Conveyor belt fires can occur when belt rollers get stuck or out of alignment and rub against the structure supporting them, said John Langton, MSHA's deputy administrator for coal mine safety and health. Another possible cause is the accumulation of coal dust.
An MSHA proposal in the early 1990s would have required more vigorous testing of fire resistancy of conveyor belts. But it was shelved in 2002.
The agency proposed the change after a study showed that conveyor belts sparked 53 coal mine fires between 1970 and 1988, with 36 of them occurring in the 1980s.
Langton said officials felt comfortable withdrawing the proposal because of improved sensors that can detect smoke and carbon monoxide. The monitoring system worked Thursday, he said.
The Aracoma mine received more than 90 citations from MSHA in 2005. According to the MSHA Web site, the most recent were issued Dec. 20, when the mine was hit with seven violations for problems related to its ventilation plan and efforts to control coal dust and other combustible materials.

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