UBB transcripts raise mine rescue system questions

May 7, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

It will take a while before we’ve all had time to fully read and understand the hundreds of pages of mine rescue team interview transcripts that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration gave to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster families yesterday.

From what we’ve been able to see so far, the transcripts clearly outlined a major dispute between MSHA’s own mine rescue team members and Massey Energy officials about how the effort to search for potential survivors at Upper Big Branch was handled. And the testimony from MSHA rescue teams indicates that the agency’s then-district manager, Bob Hardman, sided with Massey, ignoring longstanding mine rescue protocols that called for having backup teams ready before rescuers risked their lives underground.

As I’ve read through more of the testimony last night and this morning, more details have jumped out at me, including some that indicates concerns about the safety of rescue teams wasn’t limited to the hours immediately after the explosion on April 5, 2010.

MSHA rescue team member Fred Martin told investigators during his interview that he was concerned about efforts much later that week — including a last push by rescue teams to see if the last four unaccounted for miners might have made it to a rescue chamber deep inside the Upper Big Branch operation. Martin said rescue teams felt almost certain that those miners had not survived the explosion, based on the condition of the mine and the victims they had already seen. But, Martin testified, there were political pressures to try to make it to the rescue chambers within 96 hours of the explosion, because of media and public perceptions that this was exactly how much time any survivors could have lasted in those rescue chambers.

Martin told investigators:

We felt that political pressure from the state level had us go in and look at this thing, whether it was safe or not … that was the consensus of several of the [Mine Emergency Unit] people, that we were kind of , you know, we were going to be — whatever happened to us happened to us, but they wanted to see what was in that box.

Pat McGinley, a member of the independent investigation team led by Davitt McAteer, asked Martin during his interview if the rescue teams felt that the search for survivors was not going to be successful, because all of the miners had perished:

To the MEU people, yeah, because I mean, those guys never knew what hit ’em. I mean the ones I saw, they just — they never knew what was coming.

Even with the release of these transcripts, there’s still much we don’t know about the mine rescue effort. MSHA did not release the testimony of Bob Hardman or Kevin Stricklin, top officials in charge of the agency’s part of the operation. And top Massey officials involved in the rescue, such as vice president for operations Chris Adkins (above) asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to talk to government investigators.

The testimony makes clear the bravery and dedication of the men who serve on our nation’s mine rescue teams, and at points they show the raw emotion and frustration — and strong disagreements — that existed in an almost unbelieveably tense situation like the Upper Big Branch rescue effort.  For example, at one point during the confrontation in which MSHA rescue team members’ concerns about the lack of backup teams were overruled by Massey and their own MSHA supervisor, Chris Adkins made it clear how he felt about the backup protocols the MSHA teams were trying to enforce. According to MSHA rescue team member Fred Wills:

He said we were not playing mine rescue today.

When thinking about all of this, it’s important to remember two sets of conflicting memories that everybody involved could have had in the back of their minds.

First, there’s the experience of the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma fire, two instances where rescue teams didn’t make it to missing miners in time to save them.

On the other hand, there’s what happened just a few years ago at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, where three rescue workers died in a follow-up mine collapse.  And it wasn’t so terribly long ago that 11 people, including mine inspectors, were killed in a follow-up explosion at the Scotia Mine in Letcher County, Ky.

Another MSHA rescue team member, Mike Hicks, explained in his interview that some rescue protocols might not have been followed to the letter at Sago, and — in a statement agreeing with Martin’s assessment — explained why Sago and Upper Big Branch were different:

We broke them at Sago because we thought we still had victims, which we did.

Even before Upper Big Branch, MSHA chief Joe Main had promised a major review of the nation’s mine rescue system (which supposedly was greatly reformed after Sago as part of the Miner Act) … we’ll have to wait and see if Main’s review includes an honest and public accounting of what happened last April.

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