The collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine one year ago was so extensive, federal officials found no other mining disaster in the last 50 years to compare to it.
Hundreds of coal pillars, overloaded by aggressive mining that carved out too many voids, collapsed within seconds on Aug. 6, 2007, entombing six miners nearly half a mile underground. Satellite radar images show that a 69-acre section of the mine caved in – the equivalent of 63 football fields without the end zones.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration said the mine was “destined to fail” because the mining company made critical miscalculations and didn't report early warning signs. But MSHA itself also was faulted by its parent agency, both for lax oversight before the collapse and for its handling of a haphazard rescue effort that killed three more people.
Regulators acknowledge the rescue tunneling should never have been attempted because it only made the mine more unstable.
Relatives say they now know that the mine company and federal regulators failed the miners.
“The disappointment I have is knowing they'll never be able to get those boys out,” said Frank Allred, the older brother of Kerry Allred, a ram-car operator and one of the trapped miners. “I see those bodies in that black hole totally covered in coal.”
At each step of the way, starting months before the disaster, Crandall Canyon was doomed, according to 1,400 pages of government and congressional reports.
A day of reckoning came two weeks ago, with the U.S. Department of Labor scolding MSHA for rubber-stamping a risky mining plan and launching an ill-conceived rescue effort that left nobody clearly in charge.
Earlier that day, the mining agency blamed a subsidiary of Ohio-based Murray Energy for digging unauthorized coal and its engineers for a series of blunders on Crandall Canyon's supposed stability.
On Wednesday, family members were to mark the anniversary of the cave-in by dedicating a circle of nine tombstones commissioned by mine boss Bob Murray in a serene spot of Crandall Canyon.
Another memorial, a bronze panel now being cast of the faces of the nine dead, will be dedicated in the nearby town of Huntington on Sept. 14.
The miners' survivors have received some company and worker's compensation and Social Security benefits. They've also filed lawsuits.
Federal prosecutors are considering criminal charges. MSHA cited Murray Energy affiliate Genwal Resources for negligence. Engineers Agapito Associates of Grand Junction, Colo., was cited for “reckless disregard.” The companies were fined a total of $1.8 million, the largest fines levied on a U.S. coal-mining operation.
MSHA found that longwall mining had weakened both sides of the so-called Main West tunnels that collapsed, even before Genwal Resources took over in 2006.
At first, city block-size coal barriers – 450 feet wide and three-quarters of a mile long – protected both sides of the Main West tunnels from the extensively mined “gobs” beyond the barriers. The mountain reacted to those gobs by transferring more weight on the crucial barrier pillars. But Genwal's aggressive mining whittled the barriers to as narrow as 135 feet.
As early as March 2007, pillars started unexpectedly collapsing. MSHA said the mine failed to notify the agency of the early danger signs; the company and its lawyers hotly dispute that.