1:18pm

Tue May 10, 2011
The Two-Way

Transcripts Reveal Details, Drama, Troubles Of Mine Disaster Rescue Effort

As we reported here Friday, the release of 1,700 pages of interviews about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster search and rescue effort revealed undue risk to the rescuers.

On Friday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) handed out printed copies of the transcripts to families of the 29 miners killed in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the West Virginia mine. Monday, MSHA publicly posted the transcripts on its website.

The transcripts give a rare peak into the mostly secretive, year-long mine disaster investigation. MSHA said it released interviews with 25 mine rescuers in response to persistent questions from victims' families.

The rescuers were from MSHA, the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training (OMHST) and Massey Energy, the owner of the mine.

Here are some highlights from the transcripts:

-- MSHA field office supervisor Fred Wills testified (page 40 of his transcript) that Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins responded this way to concerns that the early rescue effort was unnecessarily risky given no backup for mine rescue teams: "He said we were not playing mine rescue today," a reference about the life and death stakes of a real disaster and not the rule book used in hypothetical mine rescue contests.

-- Wills himself was the subject of some concern because he was part of the mine rescue effort, but was not a certified rescuer that day. Wills had extensive mine rescue experience and training in the past, but MSHA colleague Mike Shumate testified (page 42), that, "We sent a non-mine rescue individual in. ... That was against our training."

What would happen, Shumate wondered, if Wills had to suddenly don emergency breathing apparatus he was not trained to use?

MSHA has made much of the fact that two Massey officials, who were also not certified for mine rescue, spent nine hours underground. But Wills is different, says MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere. Wills did not go beyond the "fresh air base" underground, she notes, where assisted breathing apparatus would be required.

-- Shumate repeated another rescuer's complaint about the impact of political pressure on the mine rescue. "We let bureaucrats and politicians run the show," Shumate testified (page 41). "We ended up putting [rescue] team members in dangerous situations at times just to get things done for politicians."

-- Massey mine rescuer Mark Bolen, appearing with an attorney and as a result of a subpoena, prayed as he began his testimony (page 8). "God, I ask you to guard my mouth that I should speak only the truth, that I should speak encouragement, that I can be a help."

Bolen then described the difficult but focused underground journey through debris while constantly testing for dangerous gases. "I had worked side by side with these men of honor right here," Bolen said (page 48). And he found miners he knew. "He was cold to the touch," Bolen testified (page 22). "You know he was — he was a body."

-- The most graphic and compelling testimony came from Eugene White, an OMSHT inspector. White also knew some of the miners he was trying to find, including one of six victims in a "mantrip" or shuttle car deep inside the mine.

"There was trauma to the bodies. All of the victims were covered in soot, unrecognizable," White said (page 94). "One of them was a friend of mine. I four-wheeled with him and I knew he was one of them but I couldn't tell you which one he was."

The remains of another victim were "very hard to figure out what it is," White said (page 66).

White concluded his testimony with a suggestion. "We've got a lot of young coal miners. I wish we could take them all in Upper Big Branch now that the victims have been removed and let them look at what an explosion will do ... to get these kids ... to think about what's going on."

-- Massey mine rescuer Shane McPherson was the first to reach the longwall mining machine where the explosion is believed to have begun. He described the grim discovery of victim after victim, as well as the effects of the explosion on equipment.

There was "disbelief and half shock to what we were seeing," McPherson recalled (page 29).

Massey attorney Scott Wickline complained about the date of the interview with McPherson — March 11, 2011. "If the people above you [investigators] really had a desire to find out what happened, you would have taken Shane McPherson's interview a year ago when you started," Wickline said (page 95). None of the investigators responded.

-- Notably missing from the transcript release was testimony from the senior MSHA officials at the command center who were responsible for making decisions and briefing victims' families, politicians and the public.

That would include MSHA coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin, and MSHA district officials Lincoln Selfe and Robert Hardman, who managed MSHA's role in the rescue effort.

Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main won't directly address questions about the transcripts, except to say that, "We will continue to release transcripts when they are releasable, based on the progress of our investigation and an agreement we have with the Department of Justice," a reference to an ongoing federal criminal investigation.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette has more about the transcript questions MSHA won't answer in his Coal Tattoo blog.

-- Also missing from the transcripts is testimony from Massey mine rescue leaders, and company executives Chris Adkins, Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead. They're among 18 Massey Energy officials and employees who have declined to testify.

[Howard Berkes covers rural affairs for NPR and has been reporting about "Mine Safety in America."] Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.