Coal Tattoo

Remembering Aracoma: Jan. 19, 2006

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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.