Lawsuit Claims Some Miners Survived Initial Massey Mine Blast

Coal miner boots and a lunch pail sat on the stage of the New Life Assembly church in Whitesville, W.Va., last April 11 during a Sunday service dedicated to the memory of the miners who were killed. (Getty Images)

A new lawsuit filed by the widow of a victim of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster runs counter to claims by government officials that all but one of the 29 miners killed died instantly and without suffering.

The lawsuit was filed in the circuit court in Boone County, W.Va., by Geneva Lynch. Her husband, William Roosevelt Lynch, was among nine Massey Energy coal miners riding in a mantrip — or shuttle car — within two miles of the entrance of the mine when the April 5, 2010, explosion occurred.

Lynch and six others in the mantrip died. The complaint alleges that he and others did not die immediately, as several government officials told the families of the victims after the explosion.

"Rescue workers told us that they can assure us no one suffered because it was so instantaneous," said Joe Manchin, the governor of West Virginia at the time, at a news conference last year.

The West Virginia state medical examiner told families of the victims that death was instantaneous or quick, and no one suffered, during a private briefing last summer, according to several people who were there.

The complaint says a surviving miner tried to place emergency breathing devices called self-rescuers on the others in the mantrip.

Sources with direct knowledge of the Upper Big Branch investigation tell NPR that the surviving miner is Timothy Blake and several sources familiar with his testimony confirm that Blake said he detected signs of life in the mantrip, including breathing, pulses and moaning.

Blake told investigators he strapped on his own self-rescuer, then struggled to get the devices on the eight other miners in the mantrip. The exertion and the time sapped the effectiveness of Blake's self-rescuer and he was forced to leave the mantrip to get help.

The multiple sources familiar with Blake's account say he testified that he encountered a group of eight Massey managers and miners rushing in to the mine. One assisted Blake as the rest continued to the mantrip.

Lynch's complaint alleges that Massey executives Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead, who were leading the group entering the mine, refused to help Blake. But that allegation is inconsistent with Blake's testimony, according to NPR's sources, who have no ties to Massey Energy.

Massey vice president and general counsel Shane Harvey also tells NPR "the notion that Blanchard or Whitehead refused aid or bypassed anyone needing aid is completely untrue."

Harvey says Massey will respond in detail to the complaint when a response is required by the court.

Here is the complaint filed in the case. Click on the title to enlarge:

[Howard Berkes covers rural affairs for NPR and has been reporting about "Mine Safety in America." You can now hear Howard's full report for All Things Considered.]

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