“Something bad is going to happen,” Gary Quarles, a worker inside Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, told at least three people on Easter weekend last year. Large parts of the mine had filled with water, impeding the flow of air that would normally remove dangerous accumulations of methane. And there wasn’t enough crew and functioning equipment to tamp down clouds of explosive coal dust. As workers returned to the mine on April 5th, some of them commented that it was stuffy and miserably hot inside. At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, a massive explosion ripped through the shaft and killed 29 men—the worst mining accident in 40 years.
The recollections of Quarles and other surviving miners feature prominently in a damning report on the UBB disaster released today. Put together by an independent team of investigators appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, it reads less like a government tome at times than a nonfiction novella. Quarles, who is described as a big man and “a good guy” preoccupied by a divorce and the welfare of his two children, is the narrative’s Cassandra. “When I get up in the mornings, I don’t want to put my shoes on,” he tells a friend. “I’m just scared to death to go to work.”
The investigation firmly pins blame for the accident on Massey. “The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris,” it concludes. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.”
The report’s blunt tone reflects the clearer picture that has emerged since investigators began probing the causes of the accident more than a year ago. But it also underscores Massey’s faded political clout. In January, Massey was acquired by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources in a deal that made Alpha the nation’s second-largest coal company while retiring Massey’s tarnished name.