NPR has learned that two officials of Massey Energy were underground unsupervised for as long as four hours after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in April. The following statement is from Massey Energy Co., in response to NPR's request for interviews with the officials, Jason Whitehead and Chris Blanchard.
Statement & Answers To Your Questions
Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead are not available for your requested interview.
At the outset, we wish to point out that Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead risked their lives to save fellow coal miners, including one of the injured coal miners who survived the explosion with their assistance. These rescue efforts were their one and only objective. Period.
Please see the responses to your specific questions below:
1. What were Blanchard and Whitehead doing underground that entire time?
Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead were engaged in an attempt to rescue fellow coal miners. They were using self-rescuers, but did not have mine rescue apparatus, which was not available at the time. This fact, and the conditions underground —which included smoke and carbon monoxide as well as poor visibility — made their progress slow. Nonetheless, in the span of nearly four hours, they traveled an estimated 12 to 14 miles on foot.
They initially traveled up the headgate entries, but were turned around by high levels of carbon monoxide. They subsequently attempted to reach coal miners by traveling up the tailgate entries, but again encountered high levels of carbon monoxide and were unable to get to the tail of the longwall (where the shearer is located). They retreated and headed back to the headgate entries, where they were able to make it to the stageloader on the headgate side of the longwall. They were unable to locate any survivors. Subsequently, mine rescue teams arrived. At this point, Mr. Blanchard led the efforts of a state mine rescue team; Mr. Whitehead took over communications.
We note that Mr. Blanchard's and Mr. Whitehead's footprints were later seen by federal and state investigators and there has never been any question about the extent of their travels underground.
2. What were Blanchard and Whitehead doing at the tailgate section of the longwall?
3. If they were engaged in search and rescue, why were they not with official mine rescue teams?
Mine rescue teams advanced underground under the direction of MSHA and did not reach break 78 in the mine until approximately 7:30 p.m. Mr. Whitehead and Mr. Blanchard met up with the teams at that time.
4. If they were engaged in search and rescue, why were they not reporting to Mine Safety and Health Administration officials?
MSHA officials were not on the scene initially; once mine rescue teams arrived and communications were established, Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead were in communication with the teams and MSHA as described above.
5. How do they respond to the concern of some investigators and families of victims that they might have been seeking evidence and tampering with evidence while underground unsupervised?
Neither they nor the Company are aware of any such concern. The Company has received many positive comments from family members about the rescue efforts that were made.
To be clear, there was absolutely no effort whatsoever to seek or tamper with evidence; the only goal was to rescue fellow miners.
6. Is their presence underground after 5:20 p.m. a violation of the 103(k) order?
Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead were not instructed to leave the mine and MSHA has not issued a citation for a violation of the 103(k) order. Previously, at a recent press conference, Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s Administrator for Coal Safety and Health, noted that after a mine accident it is not uncommon for personnel on site to immediately enter the mine to search for survivors and help those underground who have been injured.
Update: Massey Energy Co. later amended its account of Blanchard and Whitehead's trip through the mine, saying they covered approximately nine miles.