WASHINGTON Families of miners lost in the Crandall Canyon Mine accident blamed mine operator Bob Murray and the Mine Safety and Health Administration for poor treatment during the rescue effort and listed numerous questions, which remain unanswered, before a House panel Wednesday.
Members of the House Education and Labor Committee faced framed photos of the men killed in the August mine accident. They had been placed on the witness table as family members testified, at least one of them in tears, about the lack of respect they were shown in the accident's aftermath.
The families also complained about the dangerous conditions inside the mine and questioned why MSHA had allowed hazardous practices in an unstable mine.
An Aug. 6 collapse trapped six miners inside the Crandall Canyon Mine, and their bodies were never recovered. Another collapse 10 days later killed three rescuers.
Wendy Black, wife of Dale "Bird" Black, one of the three rescuers who died, told the congressmen that the whole ordeal "could have been prevented from the beginning."
"It would have taken just one MSHA official or one official from the company doing his job to have saved my husband's life," she said.
Black, like the others who testified, wanted to know who was in charge of the rescue, who had approved the mining plan, and "who in their right mind would send rescuers underground while the mine was still bouncing, then drill from the top when they had no idea what this would do to the stability of the mine, while the miners were underground mining."
Black said her husband had told her that a day before the initial collapse there had been "big bounces" at the mine, and he was worried about the conditions.
Kristin Kimber, ex-wife of Brandon Kimber, another miner killed in the accident, said, "I feel there was a lot this mountain was telling people that this was not right and nobody listened."
A report issued this week by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said an analysis of computer modeling of the mine had found "an elevated risk of bumps" in the area where the collapse took place. Despite having those computer studies, MSHA had approved retreat mining for Crandall Canyon, a mining method where pillars are cut away to collapse roofs and gather remaining coal.
MSHA head Richard Stickler defended his agency's actions in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. Stickler said the NIOSH report was preliminary, and more information was needed to reach a proper conclusion as to what exactly happened in the mine and why.
He said that during the rescue efforts, his goal was to treat family members the way he would want his family to be treated. MSHA had a liaison available all day at a family center in the junior high school, and the center later was moved to a church.
"For the most part, we did a good job," Stickler said.
But witnesses told a different story at the hearing.
"The past two months have been like a roller coaster for all of us," said Michael Marasco, son-in-law of Kerry Allred, one of the six miners trapped in the initial collapse. "From day one, we have been let down by Mr. Murray and by MSHA."
Family members said they had no clear indication of who was in charge of giving them information during the rescue efforts, with Murray giving incorrect information and MSHA not answering their questions.
Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. expressed frustration over what he said was a lack of "defined authority" from MSHA in handling the accident.
"When you have an incident like that, you expect MSHA to be parachuting out of a C-130 to take care of the situation, with some sense of direction and authority and clearly defined lines of decision making," Huntsman said. "It didn't appear to be that way."
Marasco said the families' treatment by Murray and MSHA was "unbelievable," and Murray even yelled at them when they would ask questions.
"We were just continually let down," he said. "I felt that we were not treated with the respect we should have been given."
Sheila Phillips, mother of miner Brandon Phillips who was trapped in the mine, said Murray had told the families that the road leading up to the drill sites could not support more than one rig at a time.
"He also said that he could drill a thousand holes and it would not make a difference," said Phillips. But she believes that drilling many holes could have led to finding her son.
Phillips said she didn't go to many of the meetings Murray held for the families, "because I couldn't stand to listen to the man."Stickler said MSHA does not have the legal authority to control the mine operator's communications with families or the media. In some instances during the rescue efforts, Murray started news conferences without Stickler.