Sunday, April 11, 2010

360 In-Depth: In West Virginia Coalfield, Days Of Prayer, Nights In Sorrow

The Saga of West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine Tragedy

Gary Jarrell was shooting the breeze with customers at his general store when an ambulance went hurtling north down Coal River Road.

He didn't think much of it, until he saw another, and another, and another.

Then came several fire engines, followed by a half dozen State Police cruisers. News travels fast in the hollows, and it wasn't long before someone called to say there'd been an accident a few miles down the road at Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine.

In this narrow, river-bound valley, the 125-year-old Jarrell General Merchandise store is the closest thing to a community center. Jarrell normally closes up around 5:30 p.m., but the steady stream of people stopping by to offer or ask for news continued until 3 the next morning.

As the day wore on, the news trickling in grew grimmer. Seven dead. Twelve dead. Twenty-five. Perhaps more.

The community needed the store more than ever. And Jarrell knew there would be a need for the other service he provides the valley.

Graves would need digging.

At 3:02 p.m. last Monday, computers above the surface detected a major seismic event from about a mile and a half inside the mountain, near an area known as the "Glory Hole."

A half hour from the end of his nine-hour shift, coal car operator Melvin Lynch, 50, of Mount Hope, felt his ears pop. The mine went dark.

The power goes out occasionally when someone runs over a cable, so no one on the section panicked.

When the shift was over, Lynch and the rest of his crew made their way to the surface. It was only when another crew emerged and reported that they'd been showered with debris that Lynch knew something was wrong.

By 4 p.m., first word of fatalities reached the surface. Lynch's older brother, Roosevelt, 59, was among them.

Around the same time, Gov. Joe Manchin was in South Florida, enjoying a visit with friends. Manchin was chatting when a member of his security detail told him there'd been an accident.

"We think there might be some fatalities," the officer said.

Manchin's mind instantly reeled back to January 2006, when word came of a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

The 12 resulting deaths inspired state and federal safety legislation requiring coal operators to improve underground communications, and to equip their mines with airtight chambers stocked with enough food, water and oxygen to last several days.

As Manchin - whose uncle was among 78 killed in a 1968 mine explosion - rushed to catch a plane home, he found some comfort in the thought that any survivors had somewhere to hunker down and await rescue.

The state's mine rescue team and several others were in Logan for training when news of the blast reached them. By 4:30 p.m., they were racing toward Montcoal.

At 4:58 p.m., Massey Energy Co., Performance Coal's parent, sent out its first press release about the explosion. A little over three hours later, the company announced the first casualties -- seven dead, 19 unaccounted for.

Janice Quarles, whose 33-year-old husband, Gary, was in the mine, and other family members were secluded in the mine's safety office. Around 9:30 p.m., a man -- it is unclear who -- told the crowd that the 19 had been found in a refuge chamber.

Janice Quarles went home to put her children -- 11-year-old Trevor and 9-year-old Rabekka -- to bed. She assured them Daddy was safe in "one of them holes."

As it turned out, this was yet another echo of Sago.

Four years earlier, Manchin, based on information from the site, had told the media that the 12 Sago miners had survived. Family members camped out in a church near the mine site rejoiced, only to have that euphoria crushed two hours later.

Shortly before midnight, state and federal officials gathered to brief the media at an elementary school down the road from the mine.

Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced that the known death toll had risen to 12. But he also offered what he considered a hopeful sign: Rescue crews had found that several breathing devices appeared to be missing, perhaps taken by the miners.

Not long after, company officials informed the families that two miners had been taken to area hospitals alive, but that there were now 25 casualties. One of them was Gary Quarles.

That left four unaccounted for. But at 1:42 a.m. Tuesday, a Massey press release announced rescue crews had been pulled from the mine because of smoke and high concentrations of carbon monoxide and explosive methane gas. They had gotten within 200 yards of the farthest refuge chamber.

Manchin arrived on the scene before dawn Tuesday. After getting the latest briefing, he visited with the families.

He was speaking with Linda Davis -- whose son, Timmy Davis Sr. and grandsons, Cory Davis, 20, and Josh Napper, 25, were unaccounted for -- when an aide handed him a piece of paper with the four latest confirmed fatalities.

Manchin was horrified to see the three men's names were on it. The governor quickly ushered the family into a private room.

"Linda," he said. "They didn't make it."

"Were they together?" she asked quietly.

Amazed at the woman's strength, Manchin replied, "Yes. They were all together."

The rescue chambers at Upper Big Branch were designed to sustain 15 miners for 96 hours. Officials had promised that rescue teams would try to reach the chambers before that time window had closed.

At 12:45 a.m. Friday, less than 15 hours before the end of that fourth day, two teams of eight re-entered the shattered mine on motorized vehicles.

Despite the venting, gas levels were still hovering near explosive limits. So the decision was made to pump in nitrogen that would deprive any potential spark of life-giving oxygen, but it also required rescuers to wear their masks the whole way.

They got to the first chamber. Its balloon-like sides had not been deployed.

The teams headed for the second chamber, about 2,500 feet deeper into the mine. But before they could reach it, they encountered smoke.

For a third time, they were ordered back.

At the afternoon briefing, the news got worse.

Stricklin announced that the drill boring the camera hole had struck a solid pillar of coal. The hole was useless.

"Not a whole lot has seemed to go our way," a dejected Stricklin said.

The one bright spot was that methane readings had been dropping. So at 2:30 p.m., the teams entered the mine a fourth time.

For hours, there was no word. Then, at 11:57 p.m., five ambulances pulled up to a bridge at the mine entrance, and state troopers worked frantically to get them across the Coal River.

People keeping vigil there thought this was a hopeful sign, until the vehicles backed into place and turned off their engines.

About a half hour later, Manchin and federal officials left the families and headed toward the school where the media had been waiting.

At 12:38 a.m. Saturday, the rest of the world learned what the families already knew.

Stricklin told reporters that three of the four missing men had apparently been obscured by smoke and coal dust when rescuers made their first pass through the mine the day of the blast. The fourth and final missing miner was found deeper in the mine around 11:30 p.m.

None of the chambers had been deployed, he said. Death appears to have come instantly.

"We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for," Manchin told reporters. "So this journey has ended, and now the healing will start."

The final death toll was 29 - the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

Retired miner Willam "Hot Rod" White was watching the news conference in a smoky video poker room down the road in Whitesville. When officials vowed a thorough investigation, White shouted, "Amen, brother!" then hopped in his car and sped away, leaving behind the unopened beer he'd purchased at the convenience store next door.

Up a steep switchback gravel road, past an abandoned rail siding that vanishes into a tangle of blackberry brambles, a patch of land sits high above the creek with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. This place, near the town of Pax, which means "peace" in Latin, is Workmans Creek Cemetery. It is Deward Allan Scott's final resting place.

Scott had spent nearly half his 58 years in the mines. His family learned late Monday that he was among the dead. The next day, they contacted Gary Jarrell about digging the grave.

When Jarrell started digging graves two decades ago, all the work was done with shovels. Nowadays, he uses his Mustang backhoe on some jobs, but most of Raleigh County's family cemeteries are perched on hillsides too steep and isolated for heavy machinery.

Jarrell went with the family Wednesday to tour the remote burial ground. He would need the shovels.

Despite torrential rains Thursday that turned the hillside into a muddy soup, Jarrell and a cousin stabbed at the rocky earth with their spades for 5½ hours, quitting at sunset. On Friday morning, the two men, accompanied by Jarrell's nephew, a Marine home on leave, returned with a jackhammer to break through the last few inches of sandstone and shale.

Over the years, Jarrell had dug many graves for coal miners who'd died of black lung disease or old age. But never for someone killed in the mines.

"I guess I would rather bury an old person that has lived a long, long life than I would young person or middle-aged person that got killed in an accident," said Jarrell, his hands calloused from digging. "The younger the person is, I guess, the harder it is."

The Office of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin; Massey Energy Company; Performance Coal; Jarrell General Merchandise; U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration; Reuters; AP; Wall Street Journal; reporters Greg Bluestein, Lawrence Messina, Dena Potter; Vicki Smith; John Young; Tracey Peterson; Lisa Daniels; Nathan Parks; Sydney Clayton and William Kerr contributed to this report.

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