By Lawrence Messina and Nancy Zuckerbrod
Sunday, January 22, 2006
MELLVILLE, W.Va., Jan. 21 -- Rescuers on Saturday found the bodies of two coal miners who disappeared after a conveyor belt caught fire deep inside a coal mine.
The bodies of Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Hatfield, 47, were found in an area of the mine where rescue teams had been battling the fire for more than 40 hours.
"We have found the two miners we were looking for," said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Training and Safety. "Unfortunately, we don't have a positive outcome."
The miners became separated Thursday evening as their 12-member crew tried to escape a conveyor belt fire at Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine in Mellville, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston. The rest of the crew and nine other miners working in a different section of the mine escaped unharmed.
Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) informed families of the deaths at a church before making the announcement, along with Don Blankenship, chairman of the mine's parent company, Massey Energy of Richmond.
It was the second major mining accident in West Virginia in less than three weeks.
On Jan. 2, an explosion at the Sago Mine, in the north of the state, led to the deaths of 12 miners. The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 26, remained hospitalized in a light coma Saturday.
Manchin pledged to introduce legislation Monday dealing with rapid responses in emergencies, electronic tracking technology and reserve oxygen stations for underground miners. He planned to travel to Washington on Tuesday to discuss the proposals with the state's congressional delegation.
Rescue workers on the surface of the Alma mine got no response Saturday morning when they drilled a 200-foot hole into a mine shaft to try to contact the missing miners. Workers pounded on a steel drill bit but heard nothing from below, and a camera and a microphone lowered into the hole detected no sign of them.
The intensity of the heat and smoke had blocked rescue teams from getting beyond the burning conveyor belt, Conaway said. Heat from the fire also had caused the roof of the mine to deteriorate.
The accident's victims, Bragg and Hatfield, were fathers with more than a decade of mining experience and had worked in the Alma Mine for five years. The two men had been equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce about an hour's worth of air, but officials had initially said there were also pockets of breathable air inside the mine that they might have reached.
Rescue efforts were hampered by heavy smoke that cut visibility to two to three feet in the mine. Teams were able to get into four tunnels, each about four miles long, but they could not penetrate beyond the burning conveyor belt.
Officials emphasized that there were key differences between the Alma Mine fire and the Sago Mine explosion. For one, the carbon monoxide levels, while still higher than normal in the Alma mine, were not as severe, Conaway said. Also, the ventilation system continued to work at the Alma Mine, and no methane was detected coming out, said Robert Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
That enabled rescuers to get into the mine more quickly. The gases at the Sago Mine and damage to the ventilation system had prevented investigators from entering the mine until Saturday. It will likely be another week before they can reach the deepest parts of the mine and begin the physical investigation into what caused the explosion, said Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine.
Conveyor belt fires can occur when belt rollers get stuck or out of alignment and rub against the structure supporting them, said John Langton, MSHA deputy administrator for coal mine safety and health. Another possible cause is the accumulation of coal dust.
Jimmy Marcum, a 54-year-old retired miner from Delbarton, said better equipment is needed to protect miners.
"I mean, they can send a man to the moon but they can't make [an oxygen canister] that will last at least 16 hours. . . . That's what they need to do," Marcum said.
Amid criticism that it has not made mine safety a priority, the Bush administration is launching a review of emergency equipment, including the one-hour oxygen packs that proved to be inadequate in the Sago disaster.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration is seeking public response on how to better supply miners and rescuers with equipment such as breathing apparatus and communications devices, according to its regulatory agenda. The Sago accident "underscored the vital role that mine rescue operations play in response to catastrophic mine incidents," the document said.
An item the Clinton administration had been reviewing, but that was withdrawn from consideration during President Bush's first term, was deployment of mine rescue teams. Mine operators rely on rescue teams that are as much as two hours away, which union officials say is too far.
In its request for public input, the mine safety agency is seeking information on technology that might help rescuers communicate with miners, such as text messaging devices. The agency also is looking into whether rescue chambers could be built inside mines.
Zuckerbrod reported from Washington.