Life-saving airtight refuge chambers stored deep inside the Upper Big Branch mine when an explosion tore it apart and killed 29 miners worked properly when tested last week, West Virginia's mine safety chief said Wednesday.
The refuge's steel boxes opened and the chambers inflated as designed when they were tested deep inside the southern West Virginia coal mine, said C.A. Phillips, director of the state office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. Officials from West Virginia, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and Richmond, Va.-based mine owner Massey Energy Co. conducted the tests last Thursday.
"Good news for a change," Phillips said, a day after the first anniversary of the explosion.
West Virginia and later MSHA mandated airtight shelters after 12 trapped miners ran out of air and died 2006 following an explosion at the Sago Mine in northern West Virginia five years ago. MSHA now requires all underground coal mines to have refuges with enough food, water and breathable air to survive at least four days.
"It was great to know that the shelters that were a result of Sago would have worked if the guys could have made it to them," Phillips said. "They all operated exactly the way they were designed."
West Virginia's shelter standards were put together by a group of coal miners and industry and state safety officials and the devices were approved based on largely untested designs that met state engineering criteria.
Phillips said one of the shelters had some exterior damage from the blast, which tore through the sprawling underground complex with enough force to kill miners more than a mile away. Despite the damage, Phillips said the structure worked properly.
"I did go in that one myself," he said.
West Virginia Coal Association lobbyist Chris Hamilton said news that the shelters still worked is good for miners.
"It would provide some comfort knowing that those shelters were in the mine," he said.
Many in the industry questioned making refuges mandatory, in part because of concerns the most popular refuges _ essentially inflatable tent-like structures _ wouldn't survive the harsh mining environment, much less an explosion. The Upper Big Branch explosion was so powerful it turned corners and rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal, packing the power to kill men more than a mile away from where it began.
Two injured miners survived the April 5, 2010, Upper Big Branch explosion, but they were part of a crew exiting the mine and were closer to one of the entrances than the three refuge chambers in the area affected by the blast. All were deep inside the mine. One was located at the mine's main production area and the other two were stored in development areas.
The pain of the explosion _ the deadliest in the nation's coalfields in 40 years _ remain fresh for the families of the victims.
More than 120 of their relatives crowded ceremonies Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of the blast. Church bells rang across the state and Massey halted underground production in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told the families that the Obama administration will make mines safer and continue its civil and criminal investigations.
"These 29 brave men. The pain that they have suffered and what you have suffered reminded me of the work that has yet to be done," Solis said. "Safety should never be sacrificed and these deaths should not have been."