Independent report details UBB blast, rescue foul-ups (concl.)

Posted on behalf of Stewart Bell, PLLC on May 23, 2011 in Coal Mining Accidents

We are continuing our discussion of the disaster at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine. The report of the independent investigator, J. Davitt McAteer, includes a description of the disaster based on the testimony of witnesses and workers. In our last post, we went through the conditions that led up to the mining accident.

There were ventilation problems that day, as well as an accumulation of coal dust. As miners worked in different tunnels, a longwall shearer struck the roof of the mine, creating sparks. Methane gas had accumulated nearby, either from the mined area behind the shearer or from the mine floor. A fireball erupted when a spark ignited the methane.

Shearers are equipped with water sprays, but the sprays on this machine were missing or clogged. The machine could not help put the fire out, and the crew could not control it.

The flame gained speed, and the fireball grew in size. When the compressed air at the leading edge picked up the loose coal dust, the dust, "like a line of gunpowder," sent the explosion in multiple directions.

Outside the mine, witnesses saw dust and debris fly out from the mine's portals. According to testimony, this lasted for more than three minutes, and it sounded like jet engines.

Of the 29 miners who died, 10 were killed by injuries sustained in the explosions and 19 died of carbon-monoxide intoxication.

The report describes the initial rescue effort as chaotic. The effort also violated mine-rescue practices, risking the loss of more lives.

It took nine hours for mine owner Massey Energy Co. to figure out which miners had been in the tunnels at the time of the explosion. The company had no system to track who they were, much less where they were.

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Report Faults Massey in Miners' Deaths," Kris Maher, 05/19/2011

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