After W. Va. Mine Blast, Confusion Impeded Search One year after a West Virginia mine explosion took 29 lives, an NPR News investigation shows that questions persist about the time it took to find and identify victims, and notify their families.
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After W. Va. Mine Blast, Confusion Impeded Search

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After W. Va. Mine Blast, Confusion Impeded Search

After W. Va. Mine Blast, Confusion Impeded Search

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It will be the first anniversary, tomorrow, of the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. Families and friends of the 29 mine workers killed in that disaster will be gathering, and special invitations went out to dozens of mine rescuers who risked their lives to try to find missing miners. An NPR News investigation has discovered new details about the rescue effort, and problems that plagued it. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES: On the evening of April 5th, seven bodies were recovered and identified and seven families were given terrible news. There were still 22 miners underground and their anxious families gathered at a Massey Energy storage building near the mine entrance.

Ms. JUDY JONES PETERSEN: You know, I really was truly convinced. Truly convinced, that my brother was going to come out of there alive.

BERKES: Judy Jones Petersen and her brother Dean's wife Gina, and her five sisters, began a vigil, sitting and sleeping in metal folding chairs on a floor stained with tobacco spit. They became known as the sisters on the wall, and for four days and nights, they focused on a podium and microphone, so they wouldnt miss a single bit of news.

Ms. PETERSEN: To me it was what I would describe as hell - not knowing, waiting in these terrible conditions. Families, you know, suffering side by side.

BERKES: Some families actually engaged in debates, Petersen says, about which miners might have survived. In the command center in a mine office, there was confusion about how many miners were underground, who they were, and where they were, says federal coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin.

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Federal Coal Mine Safety Chief): It was a very frustrating time for me, on site, to know how many people were unaccounted for. We had a communication tracking system in place that I thought we would be able to tell the exact numbers but the system that was in place, Massey just kept giving me different numbers. They had two different portals, which is no excuse. I mean we should know exactly how many people are underground. I wanted to get accurate information to the families and I didnt have it.

BERKES: The electronic tracking system was new and partially installed. But Massey officials didn't bother to check it for names and locations of miners, says Davitt McAteer, who leads an independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Leader of independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion): It was still using the, well we think they were at such and such a section, because that's where they usually were.

BERKES: So the mine rescue teams underground didn't know who and how many miners to look for, or where to look, precisely. They worked in dark, smoky and gassy entryways or tunnels, which had steel tracks twisted like pretzels and mile after mile of debris.

Mr. MCATEER: To send a rescue team without knowledge of where people are, you're sending them into a void. And they have to look everywhere. It compounds the problem that they're going to face. It slows them down.

BERKES: Confusion is apparent in command center notes obtained and analyzed by NPR. They include hand-scrawled lists that suggest miners later found dead were working with miners who weren't even there. One list is dated nine hours after the blast. And it names the miners who were working at the longwall section where the explosion began. Some names are misspelled. Some don't list job assignments. And one entry has no name at all - just question marks.

Mr. MCATEER: Well, you mean to tell me, that in today's age, where computers can tell you within seconds of the level of production off the longwall and where that coal is moving along the conveyor belt, we can't keep track of people? That's unacceptable.

BERKES: Nearly 12 hours after the explosion, Massey Energy announced 18 more bodies were found and four miners were missing. But no names were provided for four more days. Mine rescuers were still focused on finding the missing so they didn't recover or identify the dead. But two Massey executives were also underground for at least nine hours after the blast, according to the command center notes. Massey Energy says Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead were trying to find survivors. The notes reveal something that is sure to fuel lingering speculation among families. Blanchard, the notes say, identified three victims found that night. The word identified is used. Judy Jones Petersen.

Ms. PETERSEN: He should have been trying to account for his men, and if his men were dead he should have told those families: I saw your loved one. I laid eyes on your loved one. I know that your loved one is gone. And allow that family to leave the hellish nature of what we went through. But it didn't happen. It didn't happen.

BERKES: A spokesman for Massey Energy tells NPR that Blanchard's observations underground were made in difficult conditions, and did not meet an established protocol for positively identifying victims. Once that protocol was met, the spokesman says, families were notified. Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration says great care was taken when identifying victims.

Mr. STRICKLIN: Certain is the key word. You have to be absolutely, positively certain. And during this operation, we were not. In fact there were no names associated with bodies as we were finding them. But until we were absolutely certain, we didn't share that. The Massey spokesman also says Blanchard and Whitehead reported what they found underground on the mine phone, and then gave federal officials a recap when they left the mine. But it appears their movement underground added to the confusion. The pair left footprints and used and discarded emergency breathing devices called self-rescuers or SCSR's. And that seemed to mislead the mine rescue teams that followed. Here's Stricklin at a news conference early on April 6th. Now listen carefully, because it's poorly recorded.

Mr. STRICKLIN: The one positive thing that we've seen is that there's a cache of SCSR's that miners would go to if something were to occur that indicates that SCSR's were taken from that area.

BERKES: Taken and discarded SCSR's bolstered hope that some miners might have made it to refuge chambers. Rob Asbury is the leader of the Massey mine rescue team that entered the mine first and found Blanchard and Whitehead underground. He declined to be interviewed. In fact, he and Blanchard and Whitehead, and 15 other Massey managers and executives refused to be interviewed by investigators. That includes those in command at the command center.

Investigator Davitt McAteer once supervised mine safety for the federal government.

Mr. DAVITT MCATEER: It's really the first time, on such a large scale, that a management team has declined and it's unprecedented, in my knowledge, in this country

BERKES: Both McAteer and Stricklin promise more about the confusion underground in their final investigative reports, which have no release dates yet. Back on the surface, at the Massey warehouse, state troopers and social workers filtered in early on the morning of April 10th. Judy Jones Petersen and the sisters on the wall, braced for the news from a Massey executive.

Ms. PETERSEN: As soon as Chris Adkins said all men accounted for, no survivors, immediately, people started screaming. People were falling down. Chairs and tables were flying. It was absolute, dangerous chaos

BERKES: And Petersen quickly dragged Dean's wife Gina out the door, with the crying and the wailing fading behind them.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.


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