Another W.Va. Mine Disaster: Two Miners Found Dead

January 21, 2006

Two miners were found dead in Melville, W.Va. Saturday, after an underground conveyor belt caught fire, filling the mine with poisonous fumes–19 workers were able to escape, but the two others were separated.

Rescue crews attempted for 48 hours after the fire broke out to search for the missing miners. The two men, who were equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce about an hour’s worth of air. Their odds of survival “are a little bit long,” West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said.

The fire broke out Thursday night. Rescuers were hampered by heavy smoke that cut visibility to 2 to 3 feet. After the blaze was brought somewhat under control Friday, rescuers spread out to search four tunnels, each about four miles long. The mine extends as much as 900 feet below ground.

About 20 rescue teams from four states were at the scene Friday night. Those rescuers in the mine were finding some pockets of fresh air, but Conaway said there was no way to tell if conditions had changed since Thursday night.

David Roberts, co-manager of Refab Co., a mining machinery repair company, said a friend on a mine rescue team told him it was very hot — up to 400 degrees — and smoky inside the shafts.

Twenty-one miners were in the southwestern West Virginia mine Thursday when a carbon monoxide monitor about 10,000 feet from the entrance set off an alarm.

The two victims died in the Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston. A conveyor belt caught fire Thursday and the two victims—both husbands and fathers with more than a decade of mining experience—became separated from their 12-member crew.

The rest of the crew and nine other miners working in another section of the mine escaped unharmed.

The bodies were found Saturday in an area of the mine where rescue teams had been battling the intense blaze for more than 40 hours. Rescuers could not enter that portion of the mine until the flames had been mostly extinguished and the tunnels cooled down.

It appeared the two victims, identified as Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Hatfield, 47, made a “valiant effort” to escape, said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health Training and Safety.

The bodies were to be sent to a medical examiner’s office in Charleston.

Rescue efforts were also hampered by intense heat and smoke that cut visibility to 2 to 3 feet in some parts of the mine. Teams were able to get into four tunnels, each about four miles long, but they could not get beyond the burning conveyor belt. Heat from the fire had also caused the roof of the mine to deteriorate.

The two men had been equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce about an hour’s worth of air.

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 a (oxygen canister) that will last at least 16 hours,” Marcum said. “That’s what they need to do.”

Manchin planned to travel Tuesday to Washington to discuss his proposals with the state’s congressional delegation, hoping they will seek reforms on the federal level.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said Congress must give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration the tools to operate effectively, and may have to increase its budget.

“It’s unfortunate that every coal mine health and safety law on the books is written with the blood of coal miners,” Rahall said.

The federal Mine Health and Safety Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion in Farmington that killed 78 miners, including Manchin’s uncle.

Massey Energy opened the mine in 1999, and these are its first fatalities. The company said in a statement it was saddened by the miners’ deaths and would focus on comforting the families.

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