Reports Detail Slow Mine Blast Response Nearly one year after the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades, records reveal a slow and tepid initial response to the dire emergency at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine.

Emergency Reports Detail Slow Mine Blast Response

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

An NPR News investigation has turned up new details about the emergency response last year to the deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia. One year ago, Tuesday, 29 workers died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.

Records reviewed by NPR's Howard Berkes indicate Massey's initial reporting of the mine disaster was slow and tepid.

HOWARD BERKES: Shortly after 3 p.m. last April 5th, a fierce explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine, turning corners underground and splitting like a T. It roared 2 miles in one direction and 3 miles in the other toward the mine entrance where Stanley "Goose" Stewart was heading in for his shift.

Mr. STANLEY "GOOSE" STEWART: We went underground. I was about 300 feet, luckily. And I was sitting in the mantrip, and I saw a bright light. Brightest light I ever saw.

BERKES: Stewart described his escape from the mine at a gathering at the National Consumers League.

Mr. STEWART: We took off. Hadn't went very far and it became like a hurricane - debris blowing. You got to remember, we were probably 3 miles at least from the point of the explosion. We stumbled out, turned and looked, and there was buckets and what have you flying out the portal. You could see the whoosh of the air.

Before I made it out, I felt like my feet were going to leave the ground, like I might go airborne.

Mr. MARK MORELAND (Lawyer): It was very obvious to anybody that was at the portal that something disastrous had occurred inside.

BERKES: Mark Moreland is an attorney who represents coal miners in the mine disaster investigation. He also represents victims' families suing Massey Energy.

Mr. MORELAND: The mine fan, which is a huge piece of equipment powered by huge electrical motors, had actually reversed, which, to the people on the scene at the time, was a very strong indication that something disastrous had happened inside the mine.

BERKES: But Massey Energy's first report of a problem wasn't phoned in for 25 minutes.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Man #1: Mine Industrial Rapid Response line. May I help you?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, I want to report an emergency.

BERKES: And there seemed little sense of urgency.

Unidentified Man #1: What county?

Unidentified Man #2: Raleigh.

(Soundbite of static)

Unidentified Man #1: What mine?

Unidentified Man #2: It is the Upper Big Branch South Mine.

BERKES: And it takes nearly a minute and a half to get to the point.

Unidentified Man #2: It is an air reversal on the belt lines and CO, 50 to 100 parts per million CO on it.

BERKES: That much carbon monoxide indicates a serious fire or explosion, according to Bob Ferriter at the Colorado School of Mines, but it takes two minutes to get to this.

Unidentified Man #1: And anybody injured?

Unidentified Man #2: No, the mine is being evacuated at this time.

BERKES: And after another minute and a half, the call ends.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay. Thank you, sir. You have a great day.

Unidentified Man #2: You do the same.

BERKES: This is just the first step in mine accident reporting, calls to both state and federal mine safety agencies. And they must be made within 15 minutes because they trigger the state and federal emergency response, including the deployment of mine rescue teams. That requirement followed the Sago Mine disaster five years ago, in which 12 miners died waiting rescue after delays in the reporting of the accident.

These calls were delayed but not nearly as much as the Massey Energy call to 911, which prompted this dispatch.

(Soundbite of a 911 call)

Unidentified Woman #1: Got a possible roof cave-in. Possible 10 people inside. Need units to respond to Performance Coal. But...

BERKES: This is nearly an hour and a half after the explosion, and an hour after Massey's first call to state and federal agencies. Calling 911 is the company's responsibility. And it's only that call that gets ambulances, EMTs and police to the scene. They got there just in time, just five minutes before the first dead and dying victims were carried out of the mine, according to emergency response records and recordings obtained by NPR.

Stanley Stewart was there trying to help.

Mr. STEWART: It felt like a combat zone. Your dead buddies laying all around you. After it was determined they were no longer alive, I said, lay a blanket down. We're not laying them on these gravels. Then when we'd lay one down, I put their hands up. I wasn't going to leave them laying like that. You got to have some respect. After that, I walked over and sat down, and I just cried.

BERKES: All this suggests two failures in the emergency response, says Davitt McAteer, who leads an independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Mr. DAVITT McATEER: One is the timely reporting of an extremely serious situation, and the second is the accuracy of that initial report which underplayed the circumstances of what was going on.

BERKES: And that doesn't surprise Greg Lay, the emergency management director in Boone County, West Virginia, which provided the initial emergency responders. Lay has more than 80 mining operations in his county and is familiar with calls from those owned by Massey Energy.

Mr. GREG LAY (Emergency Management Director, Boone County, West Virginia): We have mines around here that are very cooperative, and we have mines that are pretty tight-lipped.

BERKES: And Massey?

Mr. LAY: I would have to say Massey has a history, with my experience, to be pretty tight-lipped when it comes to just anybody being on their property at all.

BERKES: You mean including emergency medical personnel?

Mr. LAY: Yes. Yes.

BERKES: Massey Energy had no comment about this alleged late reporting of emergencies. But it says in a written statement that the 911 call took so long because the injured miners were 1.6 miles inside the mine. It took time to find them and get them out. Massey says its earlier calls to state and federal agencies were not late, because it took time to realize an explosion had occurred.

But federal mine safety regulations are clear: Any accident must be reported within 15 minutes, and an inundation of carbon monoxide is listed as a reportable accident.

Boone County's Greg Lay notes that even if emergency crews arrived earlier, they would have waited on the surface for victims.

Mr. LAY: It's entirely a different operation. It's a whole other world when it comes to doing rescue underground. We do not go underground.

BERKES: Only mine rescue teams do that. And it appears Massey began deploying two of if its mine rescue teams as early as 3:30, a half hour after the blast. Eight Massey managers and miners also rushed in on their own and found the injured and dying miners.

So both Lay and McAteer conclude that an earlier 911 call would not have likely made a difference in the survival of victims. They would not have been treated and transported any sooner, at least this time. McAteer is still concerned because there could be a next time.

Mr. McATEER: Tardy notification is an impediment to efficient mine rescue. We need to have these things done, and we need to have them done in real time.

BERKES: And McAteer says he'll have more about why these delays occurred in his final report on the Upper Big Branch disaster. There's no date yet for its release.

Unidentified Man #3: We're still trying to get all the total number, and they're still bringing fellows to the surface. It's just - it's a total disaster, Control. I need all the resources you can get me.

Unidentified Woman #2: Copy.

BERKES: It's now 5 o'clock, two hours after the explosion. Ambulances stream and scream along the twisting two-lane road in the Coal River Valley. Seven families receive heartbreaking news that night. Twenty-two others begin a painful and frustrating four-day vigil as mine rescuers try to find missing miners. They too encountered delayed reporting and incomplete information.

We'll have more on that Monday on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

BLOCK: At our website, you can see a timeline of the events of last April 5th. You can also find all the stories from NPR's yearlong investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Those are at

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