MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Motorists who drive through Whitesville, West Virginia cannot miss a long, granite memorial. The engraving on the front is the silhouette of 29 figures. It’s a roadside memorial which is an attention-grabber. Today, it is the most conspicuous reminder of a tragedy which occurred ten years ago today.
During an afternoon shift change on April 5, 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the community of Montcoal, W.Va. an explosion rocked the mountain. Fire rocketed for miles underground through entry ways of the sprawling Massey Energy underground operation and killed everything and everyone in its path.
“It had to be a horrific explosion,” said then West Virginia Third District Congressman Nick Rahall.in a media interview at the time. “There are stories of rail lines being twisted like pretzels. I talked to one individual who worked in a different part of the mountain and heard the explosion from a great distance away and it knocked him to the ground.”
Steve Smith was a miner who worked on the other side of the mountain. He was actually headed into the mine when the blast occurred.
“Since we weren’t’ that far underground, we high tailed it back to the outside,” he told MetroNews on the evening of April 5th.
“We thought it was a roof fall or something that caused all that air. But the more we got to talking about it and thinking about it we knew it had to be some kind of explosion. There was dust lingering in the air, but the air wasn’t going anywhere. The further we got down the track, the more the wind picked up and before you knew it your ears stopped up and you couldn’t hear and it was like being in the middle of a tornado.” Smith said.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin at the time was Governor Joe Manchin. He was immediately on his way to the scene to begin sitting vigil with another set of family members who would await terrible news. He had more experience with such work than he wanted.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening again. We’d been through Sago and Aracoma and then Upper Big Branch and I couldn’t believe the numbers I was hearing,” Manchin said last week.
The numbers were staggering. Authorities confirmed 25 men were killed almost instantly and four remained unaccounted for. The search for the four would take another five days as the world waited and hoped. There was hope they had made it to the rescue chamber–a requirement which had been added to mine safety regulations after the Sago Mine disaster only a few years earlier.
“It was a horrible situation. Families were there, not knowing and hanging on ever word. We had to get there, get organized and get them information,” Manchin remembered.
The updates during those agonizing days as the search continued for the remaining four miners were heart wrenching. Families who knew their loved ones were lost prayed alongside those who were unsure. The world waited, and hoped. On April 10th, Governor Manchin and MSHA officials, in the wee hours of the morning, delivered the bad news that none of the miners had survived.
“We had a horrible situation and 29 miners lost their lives and it was all preventable,” Manchin today recalls.
The investigation in the years following the explosion revealed a poor culture of safety at the operation. Investigators found corners were cut and coal production was demanded at all costs. Surviving family members testified their deceased love ones had warned of problems at U-B-B and some even wrote down those concerns and asked love ones to give their notes to investigators if something happened. Those letters from the grave revealed a pattern of complacency and general apathy toward safety, not only by the company, but also by MSHA.
During the years which followed, new federal regulations were put into place over what was learned from the Upper Big Branch disaster. MSHA leadership changed and enforcement regulations were tightened. Manchin was among those who led the charge for the changes, and now bristles at the notion of rolling them back.
“We did everything we could to make mines safe. To have legislators thinking now we have to roll that back because of the cost is unconscionable. You can put a price on every single piece of equipment in that mine, but the life of a miner is priceless,” Manchin said.
Massey Energy never recovered from the disaster. The company was sold and its name dissolved forever. The company’s President and CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of violating federal mine safety laws and served the maximum sentence of a year in prison.
The site where the UBB operation was located was dismantled, the mine sealed, and if you drive by the location on Route 3 today you would never know it was once a massive coal mining operation. However, those whose love ones perished on the afternoon of April 5, 2010 will forever be haunted by the memory of what happened there.