One reporter from the radio world, Howard Berkes at National Public Radio (NPR), and the other from the print world, Ken Ward, Jr. at The Charleston Gazette have submerged themselves in interview transcripts from witnesses involved in the emergency response on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine. About two dozen transcripts were released by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) on Friday, May 6, 2011 to the victims’ families. Soon after, the investigative reporters were writing stories based on the transcripts. (To-date more than 250 individuals have been interviewed by MSHA and State investigators; MSHA indicates it released these specific transcripts at the request of the victims’ families.)
The Charleston Gazette’s Ward broke the story “MSHA rescue teams, Massey at odds early after UBB blast,” late on Friday, May 6. His article quotes from the mine rescue team members, including MSHA’s own employees. Ward writes the rescuers were concerned that
“Massey Energy was directing them to continue underground without having required backup teams available.”
The transcript from one MSHA team member said:
“They could’ve … they could’ve killed every one of us. At that time, we were expendable that night, that’s my opinion. They didn’t care what they did with us.”
Ward followed-up with another article moments later on the newspaper’s blog Coal Tatttoo. In “Transcripts detail Upper Big Branch rescue dispute,” the reporter provided several ongoing updates, including one referring to Howard Berkes’ article at NPR’s blog The Two Way. Berkes had obtained a quote from Massey Energy’s vice president and general counsel, and posted it in his own story “Upper Big Branch mine disaster rescue put more lives at risk.”
The following day, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Berkes spoke with the show’s host Scott Simon about revelations from the released transcripts. His story leads with:
“The 31 mine workers hit by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last year weren’t the only people whose lives were at risk that day.”
Ward provided another story on Coal Tattoo on Saturday (May 7) further describing a
“major dispute between MSHA’s own mine rescue team members and Massey Energy officials about how the effort to search for potential survivors at Upper Big Branch was handled.”
The testimony he describes indicates that an MSHA district manager who was manning the incident command center (with company and state officials) sided with Massey Energy’s decision to forego having a sufficient number of backup teams.
When MSHA released the transcripts to the 29 victims’ families on Friday, May 6, the agency asked the recipients to not share them with anyone. MSHA indicated that it planned to make the documents public a few days later. On Monday, May 9, MSHA posted the selected transcripts on its website. A news release accompanying the documents reminded the public that mine rescuers are volunteers who
“place their own lives at risk.”
In an attempt to put the transcripts in context, the release also noted:
“As many mine rescue events of the past have indicated, confusion is not uncommon, and information is not always effectively communicated as rescuers search for survivors in a race against time and in a life-threatening atmosphere. This rescue operation was no different.”
The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, Jr., followed up later that day with another post in which he shares an email exchange, dating back a year to the days of the rescue efforts, between the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office on Congressional Affairs and a member of Senator Robert Byrd’s staff. Byrd’s Sam Petsonk writes:
“We are continuing to get inquiries from the families of rescue team members about whether the teams are safe and which ones are underground. I have raised this issue repeatedly with MSHA, the state, and Massey over the past 48 hours and still there has been scant public messaging to assuage the safety concerns of the families of the 150 rescue team members.”
Read the responses from DOL for yourself and see if they make you cringe.
Later on Monday, May 9, Ken Ward Jr., posts at Coal Tattoo “MSHA’s Joe Main refuses to answer questions about mine rescue effort,” quoting from the MSHA chief’s decision to refrain from releasing certain documents, including nearly all of the witness interviews.
“The Mine Act requires that MSHA conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident. It does not require us to publicly release information such as witness interview transcripts.”
Ward point out however:
“…the Mine Act does state that ‘All records, information, reports, findings, citations, notices, orders, or decisions required or issued pursuant to or under this Act … shall be made available for public inspection.”
As Ward has also done previously on the Gazette’s blogs, he gives us the list of questions he specifically posed to agency officials, in this case to MSHA.
Today, NPR’s Howard Berkes adds to the mix with his story “Transcripts reveal details, drama, troubles of mine rescue disaster effort,” on NPR’s blog The Two Way. Berkes provides further troubling testimony from MSHA’s own mine rescue personnel, as well as insight from several rescuers employed by West Virginia’s mine safety agency and Massey Energy’s. Berkes highlighted an exchange between an attorney, who accompanied a mine rescuer at the closed-door interview, and investigators. He writes:
“Massey attorney Scott Wickline complained about the date of the interview with McPherson — March 11, 2011. ‘If the people above you [investigators] really had a desire to find out what happened, you would have taken Shane McPherson’s interview a year ago when you started.’ Wickline said. (Testimony PDF, see page 95)”
Berkes notes: “None of the investigators responded.”
If Ward and Berkes can produce this many stories in just a few days from only two dozen interview transcripts, we hope there will be more of the same when additional transcripts and documents related to the Upper Big Branch disaster are released by investigators.