CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Faced with a small methane gas fire that couldn't be extinguished in a highly volatile underground mine, at least two victims of the nation's deadliest coal mine explosion in decades spent their final moments on a harrowing dash for safety.
Weighed down with heavy boots and belts toting several pounds of equipment, their way lit only by cap lamps, the two victims covered maybe 500 yards in about 90 seconds before the flames ignited coal dust and set off a tremendous explosion that tore through southern West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine and killed 27 others, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday.
"I really don't know what they're thinking at the time. I just know that they know they're in a bad issue and they're trying to get out of there as quickly as possible," agency administrator Kevin Stricklin said in a media briefing on the investigation of the April 5 tragedy.
Records obtained from owner Massey Energy Co. and evidence found deep inside the mine points to poor maintenance as the cause of the blast, MSHA said. The agency expects to finish its probe in two to three months, but said it wanted to issue preliminary findings.
Those findings include worn and broken equipment investigators believe contributed to the initial fire and made it impossible to put out – an extinguisher isn't required at that location – and poor housekeeping that allowed excessive amounts of explosive coal dust to coat much of the mine just before the blast.
"We've always taken a position that all explosions are preventable," Stricklin said. "We still stand by our point."
Investigators believe the explosion started when badly worn teeth on a 1000-foot-wide mining machine created a spark that ignited as little as 13 cubic feet of methane.
"It would be like a burst or a burst of flame," Stricklin said.
Tests that Massey resisted showed that some of the machine's 48 water sprayers for controlling dust and dousing sparks weren't working at the time.
"There are a number of sprays that are missing. It almost looks as if a garden hose has water coming out of it and the other sprays do not have water coming out of them," Stricklin said.
Richmond, Va.-based Massey stuck to its stance that a massive influx of natural gas from deep below the mine rushed in through a crack so quickly it overwhelmed safeguards.
"We do not currently believe that there were issues with the bits or the sprays on the shearer that contributed to the explosion," general counsel Shane Harvey said. "We likewise do not believe that coal dust played a meaningful role in the explosion. We currently believe the mine was well rock dusted."
MSHA cited Massey on Nov. 10 for impeding its investigation after mine employee Charlie Bearse refused to help supply water to test the sprayers.
Massey has insisted the explosion was caused when gas pouring from a crack in the floor overwhelmed safeguards.
The evidence shows that's not the case, Stricklin said. "It was a small amount of methane when it began," he said.
And a large amount of coal dust.
The Associated Press reported in September that handwritten inspection logs filled out by Massey employees before the explosion showed eight of the mine's conveyer belts had excessive amounts of coal dust before the explosion. MSHA cited those reports and dust samples taken after the blast that showed excessive coal dust throughout a wide area of the mine.
The worn teeth, which are more prone to sparking, and broken sprayers were not mentioned as required in a report on an examination conducted about 20 minutes before the explosion, Stricklin said. That report noted only that there was enough air blowing across the face to ventilate the area and that no methane had been detected.
Massey records suggest production at the mine was lagging that day. Stricklin said records show the longwall broke down about 11 a.m. and wasn't running until as late as 2:15 p.m.
Investigators are still trying to determine whether the mine's ventilation system was working properly at the time.