SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The rescue effort after the massive mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and injured two others was reckless and put rescue workers' lives at risk. That's according to newly-released documents from the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
NPR's Howard Berkes has been reviewing the documents and joins us.
Howard, thanks for being with us.
HOWARD BERKES: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: There wouldn't seem to be a safe way to rush into a coal mine after an explosion, but what happened at the Upper Big Branch mine last year that made it even riskier?
BERKES: Well, there was a failure to follow a fundamental rule of mine rescue, which is - don't go deep underground without a backup rescue team on duty in case the first responders can be rescued themselves if they need it. And at Upper Big Branch on April 5th last year, there was no backup, at key moments, for these mine rescuers according to three of them who testified in a joint state and federal investigation. Transcripts of their interviews and more than 20 others were released to the families of the victims of the mine disaster yesterday and some were then obtained and then posted online by the Charleston Gazette.
SIMON: Howard, what did the mine rescuers say about the dangers they felt and why the basic protocol wasn't followed?
BERKES: You know, the three mine rescuers were talking about were very experienced. They were with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, and two of them were among the first to go underground after the explosion. And they noticed that they had no backup teams standing by. And they complained to their supervisors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and to officials from mine owner Massey Energy, who were all in the command center that night, but they were told to go in anyway.
One of them testified this way. He said they could have killed every one of us. We were expendable that night. They didnt care what they did with us. Another federal rescuer testified that political pressure trumped safety in the ongoing rescue effort that followed for four days.
SIMON: Recognizing that, but with the hope that some miners might have survived the blast, wasnt the impulse to go in despite the protocol understandable?
BERKES: That impulse has killed mine rescuers in the past many times. And as one of the mine rescuers at Upper Big Branch said in his testimony, it's bad enough to try to find 29 people, you dont need 40 more to look for.
SIMON: Why weren't more mine rescue teams available?
BERKES: Well, NPR has already documented delays in the emergency response, in part because Massey Energy seemed to underplay its early reporting of this accident. But I've also been looking at the mine rescue effort for several weeks and I've learned that the state of West Virginia's mine rescue teams were not notified or deployed until 90 minutes after the explosion. And they were all more than an hour away. This is according to a source familiar with the deployment of those teams.
SIMON: And Howard, do the transcripts include testimony from officials from the state, from Massey Energy and Federal Mine Safety Agency?
BERKES: You know, actually, some of the relevant state officials are part of the investigative team posing these questions. Eighteen Massey Energy officials, including those directly involved in the mine rescue effort, they all declined to testify. And no transcripts were released for the officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, who were making the decisions on site.
Now, multiple investigations continue and we're expecting the first official investigative report within a few weeks and that should explain more about these issues, as well as what caused the explosion that killed so many miners.
SIMON: NPR's Howard Berkes, who has spent the last year reporting an NPR News investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
Thanks so much.
BERKES: You're welcome, Scott.