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.
Some of the mine rescuers who tried to find the disaster's victims say their lives were also endangered by a reckless mine rescue effort.
That's according to transcripts of interviews with mine rescuers that are part of a joint state and federal investigation of the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released the transcripts Friday to the families of the 29 mine workers killed in the explosion.
One of the transcripts posted by the Gazette quotes Jerry Cook, who was deployed to Upper Big Branch on April 5, 2010, as part of an MSHA mine rescue team.
"They could have killed every one of us," Cook testified. "We were expendable that night... They didn't care what they did with us."
Cook and others described a mine rescue effort that failed to abide by mine rescue protocols designed to keep rescuers from becoming victims themselves.
One protocol requires one mine rescue team standing by while another goes deeper into the mine. That's in case the team advancing underground gets in trouble and needs its own rescue.
According to testimony in the transcripts, MSHA mine rescuers resisted going deep underground but were overruled by MSHA supervisors who were pressured by officials from Massey Energy, the owner of the mine.
"We have not had an opportunity to read the testimony," says Shane Harvey, Massey's vice president and general counsel. "However, I can say that we are very grateful to the many teams that participated in the rescue operations. We felt that the heroism, professionalism and teamwork exhibited by the teams was nothing short of remarkable."
A spokeswoman for MSHA declined to respond to NPR's questions about the transcripts. But Amy Louviere did say that the transcripts were released to fulfill a promise to the Upper Big Branch families.
Louviere also noted that "the Department of Justice has no objection to their release," despite an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
Another transcript posted by the Gazette quotes MSHA mine rescuer Mike Hicks, who told investigators, "Our first priority is our team. We have to protect them."
But there was no backup, Hicks testified. "That procedure... [in] this disaster was not followed."
That still concerns some mine rescuers, Hicks added. "A lot of them [are] about ready to get off the team."
NPR has learned from other sources that a mine rescue team deployed by a mining company refused to go underground that night because no backup teams were available.
NPR has also learned that several teams from the West Virginia Office of Mine Health Safety and Training (OMHST) were not deployed quickly after the accident was first reported to state officials. The state's Mine Industrial Accident Rapid Response System was notified about a problem at the mine at 3:27 p.m. that day. But the state's mine rescue teams were not notified and deployed until 90 minutes later, according to a source familiar with their deployment. And those teams were more than an hour from the mine.
Over the last month, OMHST has not responded to NPR's repeated requests for comment about its role in the mine rescue effort.
MSHA released transcripts of 25 interviews but missing is the testimony of Robert Hardman, the recently retired District Manager for the agency who managed MSHA's mine rescue effort the night of the disaster and who over-ruled the safety concerns of MSHA's own mine rescuers, according to the testimony released. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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