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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
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Widows Blame Lax Fed for Coal Mine Deaths

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) - Widows of two coal miners sued the United States, saying its refusal to enforce rectification of a string safety violations, for which Massey Energy Co.'s Aracoma Alma Mine already had been cited, led to their husbands' deaths in an underground fire in 2006.

A federal inspection was in progress when the fire began, and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors already had "issued a total of 95 citations and orders at the Alma Mine," the widows say. When the fire was out, and the men were dead, MSHA resumed the inspection "and issued 299 citations, orders and safeguards," according to the federal complaint.

The MSHA's blatant failure to act created a "perfect storm" that led killed their husbands on Jan. 19, 2006, the widows say.

Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield were suffocated by smoke in a conveyor belt fire at Aracoma's Alma No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Va.

Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, the widows, said the federal mine safety agency breached its duty to protect their husbands. They seek $30 million for wrongful death.

Their charge rests squarely on the MSHA's own post-fire report, which said its investigations found "at least 20 specific safety violations that contributed to the accident that killed Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield" and that "for almost every violation, MSHA determined that its inspectors were at fault for failing to identify or rectify grave and obvious violations during its numerous inspections of the Alma mine prior to the fire."

Among the violations the report noted were improper mine ventilation, faulty monitoring systems, inadequate pre-shift safety checks, accumulations of combustible materials, and failure to properly train workers.

The widows say this list of violations all but guaranteed a tragic accident would occur at the mine, which they describe as "a maze of underground passages that cover approximately 6 square miles."

"Had even one of these major violations been properly and appropriately cited by MSHA, Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield may not have died in the mine fire," according to the complaint.

Bragg and Hatfield were working night shift at the mine, two of 29 workers who entered the mine the night of the fire.

At Aracoma's Alma No. 1, coal is extracted by a machine that shears coal from the face of a 1,000-foot-wide coal seam. An elaborate system of high-speed conveyor belts carries the coal to the surface.

Bragg and Hatfield's job on the night they died was to stabilize the roof of the mine so that mountain that above it did not collapse into the newly sheared area.

Shortly after their descent into the mine, the evening shift's belt examiner noted an unacceptably large amount of coal dust accumulating and determined that the main conveyor belt had become misaligned on its track - something that also had been noted on the previous shift.

This time the friction caused by the misalignment started a fire, which several miners tired to put out.

"Unfortunately, the threads on the fire hose coupling did not match the threads on the outlet, rendering the hose useless," the complaint states.

In desperation, the men opened the water tap - and found there was no water in the outlet.

"Later it was determined that the main water value had been closed at the source, cutting off water to the area where the fire had started," the complaint states.

Compounding these safety violations, the sprinkler system attached to the belt failed to activate, the widows say.

But that's not all. Ventilation-control safety barriers had been removed weeks earlier to allow for mine expansion and had not been reinstalled, and carbon monoxide detectors were not in place at all in the section of the mine in which Bragg and Hatfield were working, the widows say.

Chaos ensued. A novice mine dispatcher ignored alarms that signaled that a dangerous level of carbon monoxide was filling the mine, and due to lack of a working telephone, the call to evacuate the mine was delayed, according to the complaint.

Although Bragg and Hatfield were eventually notified of the emergency, and began, as trained, to leave through the mine's primary escape with 10 other miners, the combination of previous failures let fire and heavy smoke into the tunnel. All of the miners struggled to use emergency breathing devices, but they had not been properly trained to do so, leading to further problems, the widows say.

"The miners were left to inch along the coal rib, in total darkness and in considerable distress, searching for an unmarked personnel door that would lead them to safety," according to the complaint.

"Eventually, the door was located and 10 miners escaped. Two, Bragg and Hatfield, did not. Their bodies were located two days later."

At the time of the fire, MSHA was in the middle of an inspection of the mine that already had revealed 95 problems, the widows say. After the fire, the MSHA resumed its inspection, issuing a total of 299 citations.

Bragg and Hatfield's widows sued last week as federal officials reviewed mine safety standards after the blast at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in April. It was the worse U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.

Massey, corporate parent of Aracoma Coal Co., is not named as a defendant in the widow's lawsuit. The women reached a confidential settlement with Massey in 2008.

The Charleston Gazette and West Virginia Metro News reported that personal injury claims by nine miners who were hurt in the 2006 fire are pending.

Aracoma paid $4.2 million to the federal government in civil and criminal fines, the complaint states, "and has also pled guilty to multiple mine safety crimes, including one felony."

Bragg and Hatfield are represented by Bruce Stanley with Reed Smith of Pittsburgh.

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