Mine rescue teams in action: Aracoma

COAL mine rescue teams constantly test themselves in preparation for a real life emergency, and when fire broke out at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in January this year, their skills were needed. International Longwall News reports on how the rescue teams were involved in recovering two victims and fighting the fire.

Staff Reporter

Last week, nine months after the tragedy, the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training report on the Aracoma Mine tragedy was released, providing an insight into what happened at the mine.

When the underground conveyor belt fire occurred at Alma No. 1 mine, Aracoma Coal Company officials determined the fire was beyond their ability to control and calls were made for mine rescue assistance.

At approximately 11.37pm on Thursday, January 19 the first mine rescue teams, Massey’s Southern West Virginia and East Kentucky, entered the mine, travelling from the box cut on the surface into the North Mains area and the mouth of the old 4 right panel by diesel mantrip.

One team remained at the mouth of the old 4 panel while the other team explored inbye in the 4 right panel, the report said, but had to stop exploring due to heavy smoke and impassable water.

Mine management soon gained additional information from the No. 2 section crew, and mine rescue efforts were then directed towards the fire area.

The teams reassembled at the mouth of the panel and were told to wait there until joined by the Mingo Logan and Riverton Mine rescue teams.

Once they had arrived near the fire location, the teams determined the extent and level of the fire and decided to proceed with exploration inbye in search of the two missing miners.

Plans were then made for the Southern West Virginia team to prepare to fight the fire backed up by the Riverton team.

The East Kentucky Team prepared to explore the North East Mains inbye the fire area with the Mingo Logan team to serve as their backup.

To aid in the firefighting efforts, it was determined that the fresh water pumps located near the mouth of the panel would need to be energised and started; however, the power source for the pumps was connected to other areas of the mine.

A decision was made to send Aracoma electricians into the mine and have them separate the power supply at the pumps so no power would go further into the mine. To assist the electricians, the Pinnacle Mine Rescue team was sent underground.

Over the course of the next few hours, additional teams were sent underground to assist in the firefighting and exploration activities and water was delivered by pressure pumps to the fire area around 10.45am on January 20.

Water and foam were being applied to the fire by 11am by the Pinnacle team and for approximately the next 28 hours various teams were involved in fighting the fire at the longwall belt and drive storage unit. In addition, teams were exploring areas of the mine in an attempt to locate the missing miners.

Initial efforts for the exploration occurred in the area where the section crew left the mantrip; the next area checked was the No. 2 section and associated face areas followed by the 10 headgate areas.

The area immediately inbye the fire was one of the last areas checked due to heavy smoke and extreme heat and at 2.40pm on January 21, the Southern Coalfields team located Donald Bragg approximately four crosscuts inbye the fire area.

The second victim, Ellery Hatfield, was found 40 minutes later by the Consol Kentucky mine rescue team. Once both bodies were located, the mine rescue teams were told to stop exploration and return to fresh air bases.

Arrangements were then made to transport the victims to the surface of the mine and rescue teams were brought to the surface. The Lone Mountain and VP-8 Mine Rescue teams stayed to monitor the fire area, which continued until the early hours of January 24, and mine rescue teams then finished exploring and recovering all areas of the mine.

Despite the efforts of the mine rescue teams, the report concluded that both victims were fatally injured when they became separated from their crew after encountering thick black smoke while attempting to evacuate from the No. 2 section during a conveyor belt fire at the No. 9 headgate.

Both died as a result of asphyxiation due to the underground mine fire.

State investigators found that missing walls and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors in the deaths of the two miners.

The report concluded the missing walls allowed smoke to enter the main escape route at the mine and that the mine was not following its approved ventilation plan.

The Aracoma fire remains the subject of a civil investigation by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration and a criminal probe by the US Attorney's Office in Charleston.

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