Home' Greymouth Star : November 15th 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
8 - Saturday, November 15, 2014
he Upper Big Branch Mine
is situated 48km south of
Charleston, West Virginia. It
exploded on Monday, April
5, 2010 — just seven months
before Pike River.
In both disasters, 29 out of
31 miners underground at the time were killed.
The Upper Big Branch explosion occurred about
3pm; Pike River was at 3.45pm.
At 3pm dispatcher Adam Jenkins said, “Dust
started, just a white smoke started pouring out the
portals and it sounded like thunder. And it was
“And (mine superintendent) Gary May, he said
‘Oh Lord — something bad ’s happened ’. He said
to get a-hold of everybody and tell them to get
outside now. And I hollered and hollered and
hollered for over half a hour. And I hollered and
hollered and hollered just, you know, praying and
hoping that someone would answer me, and it
Seven months later it was Dan D uggan radioing
from the Pike River control room: “Anyone
underground? Anyone?”. Silence.
The independent investigation at Upper Big
Branch found a shearer operator had cut into
the sandstone top of the longwall, the friction
causing sparks, which ignited a pocket of methane
or natural gas. Some of the sprays to douse the
flames on the shearer were blocked. A fireball
grew to a massive slug that sped through the
The ventilation system (so heavily criticised
after wards at Pike River), was not working
properly in Virginia. When the blast came out the
portals it was described as being like a “jet plane”.
Both were gas explosions.
In Greymouth, the survivors were Daniel
Rockhouse and Russell Smith. In Virginia, their
names were James Woods and Tim Blake.
But here the stories diverge. Tim Blake was met
by rescuers. Rockhouse staggered out of the Pike
mine, supporting Smith, to emerge at a deserted
portal and no rescue effort in sight.
In the US, two days after the explosion, 11
bodies had been recovered, while 14 still had not.
There were hopes those men had made it to the
two safety chambers inside the mine.
Late on April 9, the Virginia governor
announced that the bodies of the last four miners
had been found, bringing the death toll to 29.
Conditions were so bad in the mine that rescuers
on the first day had unknowingly walked past the
bodies of the four miners. It was the worst US
coalmining disaster in 40 years.
Due to the large concentration of toxic
gases in the mine, Mine Safety and Health
Administration investigators had to wait for over
two months to enter the mine for investigation.
The administration released its final report
on December 6, 2011, concluding that flagrant
safety violations had contributed to a coal dust
explosion. It issued 369 citations at that time,
assessing $10.8 million in penalties.
Alpha Natural Resources, which had bought the
mine company Massey Energy in 2011, settled
its corporate criminal liabilities with the US
Attorney for $209 million.
One former mine superintendent, Gary May,
pleaded guilty in March 2012.
In New Zealand, no one has been prosecuted.
In April 2012, Upper Big Branch was
An independent investigation team also released
a report, strongly condemning mine owner
Massey for multiple failures to meet basic safety
Investigators also say that the Mine Safety
and Health Administration and Department of
Labour were at fault for failing to act decisively at
the mine, even after Massey was issued with 515
citations for safety violations.
The subheadings in the report could apply just as
much to Pike River: safety mechanisms disabled,
temporary airlock doors, faulty equipment and a
lack of air.
Four years later, each town has a memorial.
The Upper Big Branch Miners’ Memorial
features a 15m black granite monument with
life-size silhouettes of 29 miners etched on the
In response to the disaster, the federal
government approved new mine safety rules in
early 2013. Aimed at preventing similar disasters,
the new regulations put more responsibility on
mining companies to find and fix problems and
allow the Mine Safety and Health Administration
to designate companies as frequent violators
One of the disaster reports concluded most
poignantly (readers would probably be hard
pushed to pick if it was from the Pike River Royal
Commission, or the Upper Big Branch inquiry):
“As is true with all mining disasters, the one at
— did not end with the explosion that took the
lives of 29 men. Instead, the blast set in motion a
chain of events that has altered the future for the
coal industry, government regulators and, most
importantly, the families and loved ones who
suffered such over whelming losses.”
Four years ago, in the middle of the working day, a gas
explosion ripped through an underground coalmine, killing
29 men. Two survived. It was followed by wholesale reform
of health and safety laws, and a granite memorial to the
dead. Sound familiar? The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster
has always been eerily similar to the Pike River Mine
tragedy. LAURA MILLS caught up with the tragedy in the
United States, four years on.
United States President Barack Obama addresses a memorial in Virginia after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
The Upper Big Branch Mine memorial in Virginia.
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