PRICE Family members of the nine miners killed in the Crandall Canyon Mine in August are traveling today to Washington, D.C., where five of them will testify before a House committee Wednesday.
The overwhelming objective among the group is to promote their belief that neither the mine's owner, Murray Energy, nor the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration adequately monitored threats to the safety of the miners underground. They want to see changes.
"It will be a bittersweet moment," Kristin Kimber said. "To ensure this won't ever happen again is the purpose of us going."
She is convinced that mine owners knew they were using dangerous techniques to extract coal from the mine and that MSHA "rubber-stamped" dangerous mining plans.
Brandon Kimber, her ex-husband and the father of their three children, worked underground in the Crandall Canyon Mine and was among the nine rescue workers buried in coal Aug. 16 while they searched for the six men trapped in an Aug. 6 seismic event.
Official records show mine-induced seismic activity at the mine had been significant since March.
One of the six rescuers who survived that incident told Kristin Kimber that Brandon had saved his life by diving on top of him when a wall of coal exploded and buried the men.
"He did that instinctively. There wasn't time to think; there was just time to do," Kristin Kimber said. "He said, 'I would want them to come in after me, and I have to go in after them.' Brandon was just that kind of guy to worry."
But he didn't tell Kristin about everything that went wrong in the mine because he didn't want her to worry. Now that nine men are dead, the stories about safety concerns in the mine keep piling up.
Price attorney Sonny Olsen said he has talked to a dozen miners who worked in the Crandall Canyon mine and have related stories about safety concerns.
Some of the best witnesses are afraid to talk, Olsen said, though he hopes their feelings will change.
Olsen said he is also disturbed by MSHA's investigation team, which has visited the mine and taken pictures inside but plans to conduct the rest of its investigation into the deadly accident through interviews, not mine visits.
"I'm not very confident we're going to get to the bottom of what really happened," Olsen said.
The House committee has subpoenaed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. It seeks key internal communications documents for its investigation into the Crandall Canyon Mine accident.
"It is difficult for the families to go back and kind of keep this wound open, but the families' objective is to make change, to make MSHA accountable," attorney Alan Mortenson said. "There were people who were complaining and saying this place isn't safe."
Recovering the bodies of the six men trapped since Aug. 6 is also a priority. "I know there will be testimony about that" when the group appears before the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday.
Both the mine owner and MSHA would have to support a recovery effort. MSHA declared the search for the trapped men "suspended" Aug. 31 after seven boreholes probed the mine from the surface in search of the trapped men.
There has been no talk of renewing the search for the men or determining who would be responsible for the cost of such an effort.
Either MSHA, Murray Energy or both would bear the costs of a recovery effort.
"That is one of the problems, when people who have a financial stake in it are involved in the decision," Mortenson said. "The families don't want anything unsafe done, but they do want independent people looking at what can be done."
Caesar Sanchez worked at the Crandall Canyon Mine along with his brother Manuel Sanchez, who was one of the miners trapped. Caesar Sanchez is one of the five family members scheduled to testify Wednesday. He has harsh words to say about the way Murray Energy operated.
"They turn you into a donkey and whip you until you get your job done, so I don't like working for that kind of outfit," he said.
Caesar Sanchez left Crandall Canyon for work at a mine in Wyoming but just moved back to Price where he can help take care of his brother's family. He does not plan to return to mining.
Sheila Phillips had just passed her six-month mark working for Murray Energy, first at the Tower Mine and then at Crandall Canyon. Her son, Brandon Phillips, decided to work in the mine and was in his 11th day when he became one of the six men trapped Aug. 6.
Sheila Phillips' brother, Ray Snow, was one of 27 miners killed in the 1984 Wilberg Mine fire. She will testify Wednesday "hopefully to keep somebody else from getting hurt."
Experience leads her to Steve Allred, a career coal miner on disability, who will also testify. His brother, Kerry Allred, was also among the six who were trapped.
Steve Allred spent his career working union mines and believes the union provides "power in numbers, safety in numbers when it comes to mining."
He believes it is likely miners who have important information about problems inside Crandall Canyon aren't talking because "it's being hung over their head that if they don't like the way things are being done or they have a safety issue and let that concern be known, they're kickin' cans down the road because they're laid off or fired."
But regardless of whether a mine is unionized, "It makes me sick deep down, sick to know there's stuff like that has happened in different mines, whether they were union or non-union," Steve Allred said.He wants to get the point across that any kind of mining operation needs to have a process where people can "sit down and get together and go to the mine officials and say, 'Let's take a harder look at this. We feel there's a safety issue here, and we need to get this figured out and do it a little different way."'
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