- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

From combined dispatches

MELVILLE, W.Va. - Two miners trapped in a West Virginia coal mine after a conveyer belt caught fire were found dead yesterday, and officials angered by 14 mining-related deaths this month vowed to make the industry safer.

“It appears right now that the two miners were trying to make a valiant effort,” said Doug Conaway, West Virginia’s mine-safety chief. “They were together trying to get outside, and they encountered pretty high temperatures and high levels.”

The miners became separated Thursday evening as their 12-member crew tried to escape a conveyor-belt fire at Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston. The rest of the crew and nine other miners working in a different section of the mine escaped unharmed.

Gov. Joe Manchin III and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV informed families of the deaths at a church before announcing them publicly, along with Don Blankenship, chairman of Aracoma’s owner, Massey Energy.

“We have two brave miners that have perished,” the governor told reporters.

Mr. Manchin identified the victims as Don Bragg, 33, a married father of two of Accoville, and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield, 47, a married father of four of Simon. Both had more than a decade of mining experience and had worked in the Alma mine for five years.

“It’s just rough. He’s really going to be missed,” said Kevin Walls, a nephew of Mr. Hatfield’s. “He was just a good man. He would do anything to help anybody.”

The accident was the second this month at a West Virginia coal mine to claim workers’ lives. Three weeks ago, 12 men died at the Sago Mine near Tallmansville. The sole survivor of that accident remained hospitalized in a light coma yesterday.

Government officials vowed yesterday to tighten rules that protect workers toiling in vast coal mines, sometimes 1,000 feet underground.

Mr. Manchin said he will introduce legislation tomorrow addressing rapid responses in emergencies, electronic tracking technology and reserve oxygen stations for underground miners. He planned to travel to Washington on Tuesday to discuss the proposals with the state’s congressional delegation.

“If I have anything to do with it, if I am able with every breath in my body to make the changes that need to be made make sure that every brave miner, every brave worker in this state knows they’re in the safest conditions humanly possible,” Mr. Manchin said.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, said Congress must give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) the tools to operate effectively, and may have to increase its budget.

“It’s unfortunate that every coal mine health and safety law on the books is written with the blood of coal miners,” Mr. Rahall said.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion in Farmington that killed 78 miners, including Mr. Manchin’s uncle.

Jimmy Marcum, a 54-year-old retired miner from Delbarton, said better equipment is needed to protect miners.

“I mean, they can send a man to the moon, but they can’t make that will last at least 16 hours? That’s what they need to do,” Mr. Marcum said.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is reviewing safety equipment used in the nation’s mines after previously scrapping similar initiatives started by the Clinton administration.

MSHA is seeking public input on how to better supply miners and rescuers with equipment such as breathing apparatus and communications devices, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

In recent years, MSHA pulled Clinton-era initiatives examining safety equipment and mine-rescue operations off its regulatory agenda, a semiannual document that outlines what agencies are working on.

Key among the items withdrawn were those dealing with oxygen packs that miners carry and the ability of mine-rescue teams do their jobs. Such issues will be re-examined, according to the documents.

The federal government isn’t alone in conducting a review.

The National Mining Association, an industry trade group, plans to form its own commission to look at mine safety and examine technology that could be useful, spokeswoman Carol Raulston said.

“I think the industry has literally been shaken by this month’s events,” she said. “There was a broad agreement that we really needed to focus efforts, particularly looking at technology and training.”

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