Remembering Aracoma: Jan. 19, 2006

January 18, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Four years ago today — on Jan. 19, 2006 — a fire broke out in the belt take-up storage unit for the longwall conveyor belt at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

A crew of workers, including Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg (above, left to right), ran into thick, black smoke in their escape tunnel and had to find another way out. Ten men from the crew escaped. Bragg and Hatfield somehow became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

Federal investigators cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including “prolonged operation” of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt. Serious safety problems at Aracoma built up over time, and an independent report found that a lack of tough enforcement by state and federal agencies contributed to those problems. In an internal review, MSHA found its own performance at Aracoma unacceptable.  (Not for nothing, but a Department of Labor review conducted after the Crandall Canyon disaster found that MSHA still had a long ways to go in fixing these problems).

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Shown above is the location of one of at least two “stoppings,” or ventilation walls that were removed from the Aracoma Mine. This one was removed to allow the installation of a piece of electrical equipment.

Of course, a huge problem at Aracoma was also that Massey officials had removed key ventilation walls, or stoppings, allowing smoke to enter that primary escape tunnel in the first place —  a move that U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver later said “doomed two workers to a tragic death.”

Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal safety violations that led to the deaths of Bragg and Hatfield. The company agreed to pay a $2.5 million criminal fine and an additional $1.7 million in civil penalties. Massey also settled a civil suit filed on behalf of the Bragg and Hatfield families.  Details of that settlement have remained confidential.

One official from Aracoma, foreman David R. Runyon, has pleaded guilty as part of the criminal probe of the fire.  Runyon was sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine in a plea deal in which he admitted not conducting required mine evacuation drills prior to the fatal fire. But prosecutors and Runyon’s lawyer have pointed out that Runyon was a foreman in a separate part of the mine from where Bragg and Hatfield worked, and Runyon’s crew all escaped safely the night of the fire.

Prosecutors indicated after Runyon’s sentencing that they were continuing their investigation of the Aracoma fire,  and would make an announcement if the investigation ended without further charges. Several other mine managers have indicated publicly that they are targets of the probe.


5 Responses to “Remembering Aracoma: Jan. 19, 2006”

  1. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Remembering Aracoma: Jan. 19, 2006 blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2010/01/18/remembering-aracoma-jan-19-2006 – view page – cached Four years ago today — on Jan. 19, 2006 — a fire broke out in the belt take-up storage unit for the longwall conveyor belt at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va. […]

  2. Thomas Rodd says:

    In a comment on an earlier post, I suggested that most all heavily regulated businesses tend for natural reasons to operate at the margins of regulatory and other legal restrictions and conditions.

    I defined “nice” businesses are ones that tend to “err” in the direction of “inside the margins,” and also don’t constantly try to change and push the margins in their favor. “Not nice” businesses, on the other hand, are ones that tend to err in the direction of outside the margins, and are constantly trying to push the margins in their favor.

    My pal the late Richard DiPretoro’s hypothesis was that the “nice” approach has a harder time succeeding in extractive industries that move around a lot, etc., as opposed to say the chemical industry.

    Was Aracoma the fruit of this tendency?

  3. Shelby says:

    Some mine deaths due to fires happens occasionly. This was no big problem before mine conveyor belts were installed. Prior to belts coal was moved outside by haulage locomotives & mine cars.There was little chance of fires back then.Workers safety sould be the no .1 priority.

  4. rcj112 says:

    I’m always amazed at the expense of the loss of lives as compared to the pittance of prevention.

  5. Shelby says:

    Lubricants, coal dust, gathered at the conveyor belt driver bin. This ignited, and the belt caught fire.This should have never happened. After the belt caught fire the air flow carried the smoke to the working places of the miners. Their escape route was also blocked by smoke, due to mine brattices(stoppings) being non existent. The Fire Boss could have enforced the law and saw to it that the stoppings were in place.

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