Investigators plan to take a close look at what West Virginia’s top mine safety regulator says may have been “miscommunication” during the mine rescue response Monday night following a massive “coal outburst” at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, federal and state officials have confirmed.
As state and federal agencies begin their probe of the incident, they’re trying to sort out how it went from what Patriot Coal initially reported — that two workers were trapped, but were communicating with the surface and were “OK” — to a double fatality that claimed the lives of miners Eric Legg and Gary Hensley.
“We’re going to look into that for sure,” said Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. “There had to be some miscommunication.”
Over the last decade, miscommunication and other mine rescue problems have been serious issues in several coal-mining disasters across the country. In January 2006, for example, word was falsely spread that all 12 of the miners trapped underground at the Sago Mine in Upshur County were alive, when in reality only one of them had survived. An independent review of mine rescue efforts at Raleigh County’s Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010 found a variety of problems and recommended serious reforms in emergency response systems.
In this week’s incident, White’s agency received its initial notification through the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which staffs a hotline to field required reports of mining and other industrial accidents.
At 8:47 p.m. Monday, a Patriot safety manager, Justin Ray, called the state hotline.
“We’ve got a fall of roof with entrapment of a couple of miners,” Ray told the operator. Ray said the two miners were underneath the boom of a continuous mining machine and “the rock is around them and has them trapped.”
Ray told the hotline operator that the incident had occurred at about 8:30 p.m., and that he was calling from his home — meaning he was relaying information given to him by someone at the mine site.
“That was all I had from the limited information,” Ray said. “They said they do have communication to those miners.”
The operator interrupted to ask, “And they’re OK at this point?” Ray agreed, “They’re OK at this point.”
Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said Wednesday that his agency received a similar initial report from Patriot Coal.
“At the very front end, we did not know we had fatalities,” Main said in an interview.
On Tuesday morning, in its formal statement announcing the deaths at Brody, MSHA said the initial report was of a “ground failure” that trapped two miners and that “rescue efforts later determined that the miners did not survive.”
Main said he didn’t know what happened between the initial report and the final outcome, but that his agency’s investigation would be trying to explain.
“I’m sure that’s part of what we’re going to be looking at as far as the facts that came with regard to that notification,” Main said in the Wednesday interview. “There are times when confusion occurs whenever an accident happens. Our investigators will sort that out and we’ll have to see where it leads.”
On Thursday, MSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder declined to release the text of Patriot’s call to MSHA, but said that it was “consistent with what the company told the state.”
Patriot Coal spokeswoman Janine Orf did not respond to questions about the rescue efforts at her company’s Brody Mine.
In an interview, White said that he received a call shortly before 9 p.m. forwarding to him Patriot’s report to the homeland security hotline. He said he immediately began planning what resources could be sent to help rescue the trapped miners.
“My thought process was, ‘we need to be thinking of how can we get in there and get them out,’ ” White said. But White also said the initial report made him think the event would likely have a good outcome. “I was thinking by the time I got there, they’d have them out,” he said.
White estimated that he got to the mine site at about 10 p.m. He did not go underground, but monitored the rescue — which he said was being coordinated by Patriot officials — by listening in on a mine phone.
At least one state inspector was underground Monday night during the rescue effort, White said.
Lawder said an MSHA field inspector arrived at the mine at 10:05 p.m., followed by another field inspector and the field office supervisor. By 10:30 p.m., the MSHA district manager had arrived at Brody, along with both of the district’s assistant managers. MSHA set up a command center that was run by the agency’s district manager.
According to White, no state, federal or outside mine rescue teams were called in to assist. Patriot Coal had its teams on site, White said, but they never went underground. Instead, workers from that shift and from mine management were underground, setting up temporary roof supports and clearing debris to try to reach the trapped miners, White said. Patriot declined offers for additional state assistance, White said.
“I told the company — ‘whatever you need,’ ” White said. “They didn’t really need anything.” The company’s rescue workers were within sound and sight of the trapped miners, White said, and could communicate with them, but could not yet reach their location. At some point, though — White isn’t sure what time — he overhead phone discussions among the rescuers that indicated, “This isn’t looking good.”
It’s not clear when the rescue crews reached the miners, but officials have said their bodies weren’t brought to the surface until after midnight. Lawder said MSHA learned the miners were dead at about 11 p.m.
“The first call is like, ‘They’re OK. Everything’s fine,’ ” White said. “And then it turned out bad.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr.