The survivors of the fire, which killed Don Bragg, 33, of Man, and Ellery Hatfield, 46, of Gilbert, were suing Aracoma Coal Company, its corporate parent Massey Energy Company and Massey Coal Services Inc., alleging a host of physical and psychological problems they have been suffering since the fire.
Logan County Circuit Judge Roger Perry, who would have presided over the trial, had already granted partial judgment, as a matter of law, to the plaintiffs in the case under the "deliberate intent" portion of West Virginia workers compensation law. All the plaintiffs would have had to prove at trial would have been the damages they have suffered and the value of those damages.
Three different government sanctioned investigations found Aracoma to be at fault in the fire. The cause of the fire, according to J. Davitt McAteer, former director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton Administration was that, "equipment that was not kept in good working order provided the heating source that ignited coal dust and coal spillage which, when allowed to accumulate along conveyor belts, creates a combustible mix."
The investigations found that a conveyor belt malfunction, which had caused at least two previous fires that the company failed to report to MSHA or the W.Va. Office of Miners Health Safety and Training, caused the belt to slip and rub against a bearing which caused friction to ignite coal dust which had not been properly cleaned away from the area or rendered much less dangerous with the use of rock dust. The problem had been allowed to go on for so long that the conveyor belt wore grooves into metal supports holding it up. When miners did try to extinguish the fire they found that the couplings on the fire hoses did not match the fire hose valve. Even if the couplings had matched, the water running into the pipes had been turned off from outside the mine. The investigators found that there were an insufficient number of fire extinguishers available to the men to fight the fire.
McAteer concluded that Bragg and Hatfield were lost because, "more effort was expended in fighting the fire than in evacuating the mine; because the water hoses were dry; because the carbon monoxide monitoring system was not properly installed [and] the emergency escapeway evacuation taken by the miners was compromised by the fact that a permanent ventilation control (stopping) had been removed, allowing smoke from the fire to flow into the escapeway and meet [the miners] on the way out."
According to victim data sheets attached to the final incident report by MSHA, the cause of Hatfield’s death was asphyxiation while the cause of Bragg’s death was listed as carbon monoxide intoxication.
The widows of Bragg and Hatfield joined together in suing the same companies plus Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship and settled the case after several days of trial in the fall of 2008. Just as in the current case, the terms of the settlement were kept confidential. Judge Perry also presided over that case.
The two widows, Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, recently filed a federal lawsuit against MSHA, alleging that the government agency contributed to the deaths of their husbands by not properly enforcing federal mining laws against the company. Attached to the complaint, in support of their case, is an MSHA internal report which is highly critical of the way in which MSHA operated and enforced the mining laws in relation to the Aracoma operation.
The fire resulted in federal criminal charges against Aracoma Coal Company and five mid-level managers of the mine.
Aracoma Coal Company through its current president Johnny Jones, entered a plea of guilty to one count of willful violation of a mandatory safety standard causing death, nine counts of willful violation of a mandatory safety standard and one count of making a false statement. Then Aracoma President Dwayne Fransico is now working for former Beckley area coal operator Chris Cline, who now has widespread operation in Illinois. U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver sentenced Aracoma to a fine of $2.5 million and a five-year term of probation. The company also paid $1.7 million to MSHA in civil penalties for violations of multiple safety rules and regulations.
David Runyon, 43, of Justice, a belt examiner at Aracoma pled guilty to violating a mandatory safety standard and confessed that he failed to conduct a mandatory escapeway drill between Oct. 2005 and Jan. 2006. Judge Copenhaver sentenced Runyon to a term of probation and a fine.
Four other Aracoma mine foremen, Michael Plumley, Donald Hagy, Edward Ellis, Terry Shadd, have pled guilty in federal court to one count each of violating a mandatory safety standard and all await sentencing by Judge Copenhaver on Dec. 9 at 1:30 pm at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse in Charleston. All four have agreed to voluntarily surrender their mine foreman certifications permanently.
The W.Va. Office of Miners’ Health, Safety & Training took action to withdraw the mining certifications of Christopher Herndon of Delbarton, Dustin Dotson of Delbarton, Jeffrey Perry of Delbarton, Carl White of Holden and Fred Horton of Red Jacket. According to the agency’s website, White’s certification remains suspended.
Several others were written individual citations. Shadd was given a citation for knowing about the missing stopping but failing to take action to correct it, as was Herndon. David Gregory Meade was cited for failure to immediately notify the W.Va. Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training of a similar fire which occurred in the same approximate place as the Jan. 19, 2006 fire, but Meade’s fire erupted on Dec. 29, 2005.
The plaintiffs in the case who settled with the company and did not go to trial are former Aracoma miners Johnny Brown and wife Kimberly Brown, Patrick Kinser and wife Brandy Kinser, Thomas Vanover and wife Eva Vanover, Joseph Hunt and wife Priscilla Hunt, Harold Shull and wife Felicity Shull, Steven Hensley and wife Stacy Hensley, Randy Crouse and wife Leann Crouse, Gary Baisden and Johna Rose. The Browns were represented by Bruce Stanley of the Pittsburgh office of the international law firm Reed Smith and Gilbert attorney Tonya Hatfield. The remaining plaintiffs were represented by Scott Segal of the Segal Law Firm, Wyoming County attorney Sam Hrko, and Tim Bailey of the Logan/Charleston firm Bucci, Bailey and Javins.
The corporate defendants were represented by Joseph Hunter and Thomas Mannion of the Charleston law firm Mannion & Gray.