Transcripts detail Upper Big Branch rescue dispute

May 6, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

We’ve just posted some breaking news on the Gazette’s website: MSHA has released to family members transcripts of more than two dozen mine rescue team members who took part in the effort at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

The story is posted here, and this is what we’re reporting:

Mine rescue teams from the federal government clashed bitterly with Massey Energy officials about how to safely search the Upper Big Branch mine for potential survivors in the hours after a huge explosion in April 2010, according to previously confidential records obtained by the Gazette.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rescuers were worried about the lack of backup teams as they combed the sprawling underground mine, amid concerns about the possibility of additional blasts and other dangerous conditions.

But MSHA supervisors overruled their own rescue experts at the insistence of Massey officials, according to testimony those MSHA rescue teams provided during closed-door interviews with state and federal investigators.

“They could’ve … they could’ve killed every one of us,” said Jerry Cook, one of the top MSHA mine rescue team members. “At that time, we were expendable that night, that’s my opinion. They didn’t care what they did with us.”

MSHA is declining comment, except to say it will be posting the transcripts on its website and issuing a news release on Monday.

UPDATED: I’ve just posted online here and here two of the transcripts we’re quoting in our story … more of them to come later.


The transcripts released by MSHA detail how the agency’s District Manager in Southern West Virginia, Bob Hardman, overruled his own rescue team members, sending them beyond the fresh-air base without backup teams being available.

Interestingly, the MSHA website now lists a new manager for the district, Charles “Charlie” Carpenter. Sources tell me that Mr. Hardman has retired. Also interesting is the fact that MSHA did not release a copy of Hardman’s transcript, which might provide his side of what happened that night at Upper Big Branch. Hardman has an unlisted phone number, and MSHA has not responded to my requests for comment.

UPDATED 3: I’ve had time to scan a couple more of the transcripts and post them online here, here and here.


While Massey Energy didn’t return my request for a comment, they did give this statement to Howard Berkes over at NPR —

We have not had an opportunity to read the testimony. However, I can say that we are very grateful to the many teams that participated in the rescue operations. We felt that the heroism, professionalism and teamwork exhibited by the teams was nothing short of remarkable.

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