After the belt fire started, the miners attempted to escape from the mine through their “primary escapeway,” a separate tunnel that, according to federal law, should have been isolated from the belts and clear of smoke. But because the escape tunnel wasn't isolated from the tunnel where the conveyor belt was burning, the miners had to don their escape respirators and find another way out. Two miners -- Donald Bragg and Ellery Hatfield -- became separated from the group. Their bodies were found two days later.
Under federal law, the mine’s primary escape tunnel should have been isolated from the tunnel where the conveyor belt was burning. Block walls called stoppings should have sealed it off.Meanwhile, more evidence is emerging about the poor safety conditions in the mine prior to the fire:
But Aracoma miners have told investigators that at least one — and maybe more — of these block walls were missing, according to sworn statements obtained by the Gazette-Mail.
Miner Billy Lee Mayhorn told investigators that at least one stopping near the tail-end of the mine’s main conveyor belt had been removed sometime before the fire.
“I know that there was a stopping there for a fact, because I was on the crew that built it,” Mayhorn said during a Feb. 10 interview at the Holiday Inn Express in Logan. “We were the ones that isolated that whole belt off, our crew did. So I know that it was put there, but between then and now, something happened to it.”
Federal and state investigators are trying to sort out who among the Aracoma Mine’s management knew about the missing stoppings, why the walls were taken out, and why no one did anything about it before the fatal fire, according to the sworn statements.
Three months before the Aracoma fire, MSHA veteran Minness Justice was assigned to inspect the mine.All that as well as inaccurate maps, missing documents. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Charleston are continuing a criminal investigation of the fire, started at MSHA’s request.
The 14-year MSHA employee told investigators he had become very concerned about growing safety problems.
Mine ventilation was a mess, Justice said he had warned the company. Explosive coal dust wasn’t being cleaned up. The mine’s maps showed air flowing in a different direction than it moved underground.
“Basically, the overall picture of the ventilation at the mine was far from adequate,” Justice told investigators on March 30.
Hours before the Jan. 19 fire, MSHA ventilation experts had met with Massey officials to discuss Justice’s concerns, Rich Kline, an MSHA assistant district manager, said in a sworn statement. That same day, MSHA ventilation expert Bill Ross was assigned to survey the mine and sort out the problems, another MSHA manager, Luther Mars, told the investigation team.
Ross never had a chance to get started.