Last year's Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster, claiming the lives of 29 workers, also put at risk federal rescue teams who began their search for potential survivors hours after the blast without backup rescue teams in place, pressured by Massey Energy.
US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rescuers were forced to begin their rescue efforts without backup rescue teams, ignoring longstanding mine rescue protocol, according to testimony given to a joint state and federal investigation. Those backup teams are essential should initial rescue teams face difficulties requiring their own rescue.
In sworn testimony, Jerry Cook, a 32-year employee and one of the top MSHA rescue team members, said: “They could have killed every one of us. We were expendable that night... They didn’t care what they did with us,” according to one of the transcripts posted by the Charleston Gazette.
Rescue workers addressed their concerns about the possibility of additional blasts as well as other dangers as they searched the expansive mine for survivors with backup rescue teams in place. However, those concerns were overruled by their own supervisors, with pressure coming from Massey Energy, owner of the ill-fated mine.
On Friday, transcripts of that testimony were given to families of the 29 workers killed in the huge April 2010 explosion. MSHA is set to make the transcripts public on Monday, but some of them, obtained by the Gazette, have already been posted online.
Just as disturbing, Cook’s testimony (pdf) reveals that, while he thought his rescue team was the first to advance down into the mines, discoveries of tracks, made after the explosion, alerted him to the fact others were already in the mine, all with no back-up. “So we had approximately 40 to 50 --- probably 40 people inby with no backup,” Cook testifed (pg.60)
The transcripts also show that MSHA’s Bob Hardman, District Manager in Southern West Virginia at the time, overruled his own rescue team members, sending them past the fresh-air base with no backup teams in place. The Charleston Gazette reports Hardman has since retired, a copy of Hardman’s transcript was not released by MSHA, he has an unlisted number, and MSHA did not respond to its request for comment on the matter.
Cook also testified that he had heard workers complained of high methane level on the mine’s longwall, with those workers being told : “You can either quit or mine coal. You can come outside or mine coal. So they undoubtedly elected to run coal. This is hearsay ... This is what I’ve been told. And that’s pretty disturbing, to me and anybody else, that you’d be ordered, to say --- you have a choice,” one of the documents reveals.
Massey Energy has yet to make a public comment on the now-public transcripts, but gave a statement to NPR:
We have not had an opportunity to read the testimony. However, I can say that we are very grateful to the many teams that participated in the rescue operations. We felt that the heroism, professionalism and teamwork exhibited by the teams was nothing short of remarkable.