Utah Mine Disaster Hit One Family Hard

The Crandall Canyon mine tragedy devastated many families, but none more than the Allred clan, which lost two men. Several others were nearly killed, and a dozen or more worked on the rescue effort. So with the mine tragedy on the agenda of two congressional committees this week, the Allreds came to Washington from Utah along with the other families who lost loved ones.

Wendy Black told a chilling tale Wednesday morning to the House Committee on Education and Labor. The night before the Aug. 6 mine cave-in that killed six miners, her husband Dale Black (a member of the Allred family) told her the mountain was rumbling with "big bounces that were registering" on the Richter scale. "I've never known my husband to be afraid to go to work," she told the panel as Dale's extended family listened intently. "But the last part of his life, he was."

Hours after his confession of fear, those nerve-rattling bounces imploded Crandall's coal walls with enough force to split a multiton mining machine. Six miners lay trapped 1,500 feet below the surface, including Kerry Allred, Dale's cousin. Then, during the rescue 10 days later, another massive mountain bump hit Crandall, killing three rescuers—including Dale.

In Utah's Castle Valley—a vast, open territory two hours south of Salt Lake City with sagebrush landscapes and mountain peaks in the distance—the Allred clan runs deep. More than 200 family members trace their heritage back to three 19th-century homesteading Allred brothers. Today dozens of their descendants work the local coal mines or in the area's coal-fired power plants. They are a tight, supportive group, proud of their family, their lineage and their name. And for the Allreds who came to Washington, their message was clear: their family members died needlessly.

Sitting at the witness table four seats away from Wendy at the hearing in Washington was Steve Allred, Kerry's brother and Dale's cousin. Two seats away was Kerry's son-in-law, Mike Marasco. Behind Wendy was Cody Allred, Kerry's teenage son. In more than an hour of heart-wrenching testimony, Wendy, Steve, Mike and two relatives of other miners killed at the Crandall Canyon mine shared their stories with the committee. Evoking the emotions of the day, each put a picture of his or her lost loved one next to the microphone; Kerry in a mine, donning his gear; Dale pictured smiling in the outdoors that he loved so much.

Steve Allred, who has worked the area mines since 1978, told the committee the lack of a union at Crandall Canyon fueled a deadly silence by its workers. The miners were too afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs, he said. "A unionized mine would have let the miners pull back if they felt nervous." Marasco blamed mine owner Robert Murray and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversaw operations at the facility. "From day one we have been let down by Mr. Murray and MSHA," Marasco said. He later told NEWSWEEK, "All [the owners] cared about was getting their coal out."

Wendy Black told the committee that her husband died in the rescue operation in part because he had volunteered to fill in for another miner who declined to operate his machine to help dig out the trapped six. Why, a congressman asked? The miner usually in charge was too scared to go back into the mine, she said. (Miners took part in the rescue operations voluntarily.) So Dale stepped up. "Dale was that kind of guy," she added.

Not all of the Allred clan's official business was in Washington. The same day that Black, Allred and Marasco testified before Congress, Bodee Allred, the Crandall Canyon mine's safety supervisor and cousin to Dale and Kerry, spoke for five hours to a closed session of an MSHA panel in Price, Utah, investigating the disaster. It was Bodee Allred's first official debriefing, which he said he could not discuss. Bodee, along with most of his relatives, can barely talk about the disaster. "Half of [the Allred family] are still strong," Bodee told NEWSEEK. "And the other half, well, they are just realizing what happened." Bodee counts himself in the second group. "I feel like I'm two months behind the grieving process." Bodee was especially close to Dale. "My first boss was Dale," Bodee said with a cracking voice. "He took care of me for many years in the mines. He practically raised me. Then he worked for me."

For Bodee and the half dozen or so other Allreds working Crandall—like Bodee's brother Benny, who was originally assigned to the crew of the trapped six but was called home the day of the collapse—the memories of those August days are still haunting. When Bodee got the call that the second mountain bump had hit, he took off running. "My brother was down there," he explained. "When I got there, they handed me the first guy, and, well, he didn't look good. I gave him CPR from that location all the way to the surface—30 minutes until I got outside the mine. He was deceased at that point. I just collapsed." Benny, only feet away from the second mountain bump, had cheated death again. He escaped uninjured.

Unlike his relatives Mike Maresco and Steve Allred, Bodee says he doesn't hold a grudge against Bob Murray and Murray Energy Co., part-owner and operators of the mine. Crandall is being stripped of valuable parts since Murray announced he will seal the mine, entombing the Crandall six, whose bodies were not recovered. So Bodee transferred to another of Murray's three mines in Castle Valley, the Tower mine. "I have no problem with Bob," Bodee said. "Not everything he does I agree with, but that's part of life. My hat's off for him, for what he did and how he presented himself. I feel good working for him. If I didn't I would have left."

But others in the Allred clan obviously feel differently. After his harsh testimony in Washington about Murray and federal regulators, Steve Allred was asked if there is division in the Allred family. "No! God, I sure hope not," he said. "I have the utmost respect for all of them and love them to death. They are all good people."

Wednesday's testimony revealed that Dale Black wasn't the only one afraid to work at Crandall. Manual Sanchez, another trapped miner, also had an eerie premonition, according to his brother Cesar. "My brother was so concerned about the safety at the mine, he had asked me to get him a job at the mine I was working at, in Wyoming," Cesar told the committee. That request, Cesar said, happened just the day before his brother was trapped. "Unfortunately, he did not leave soon enough."

For Sheila Phillips, whose father and grandfather worked the Castle Valley mines, her message was on her lap, as she wiped tears from her eyes. Her son, Brandon Phillips, was caught in the initial collapse, too. Sheila brought Brandon's five-year-old son Gage, who squirmed on his grandma's lap. She implored the committee to help locate the spot where her son was buried. "I want to know where my son is," she said. "Even if they are never able to get them out of the mine, I want to know where to lay a marker." Later, after his grandmother was finished testifying, Brandon's little boy made his way up to the seat of the committee's chairman, Rep. George Miller, sitting on Miller's lap as Utah's Gov. Jon Huntsman gave testimony.

The day before the family testimony, the senate committee, led by Sen. Ted Kennedy, heard mining experts question whether Crandall should have been allowed to mine even a single rock of coal. A 2005 BLM report called a proposed mining plan—which was later approved by MSHA in 2006 after Murray purchased Crandall—"untenable." MSHA officials said they did not know about the BLM assessment, which prompted Kennedy to respond, "That's like the CIA not talking to the FBI when we're getting attacked by terrorists." Robert Ferriter, a director at the Colorado School of Mines, noted that months earlier, and only 900 feet away from the trapped miners, mountain bumps had caused a section of the mine to shut down. Would he have gone into the Crandall mine, a senator asked? "My visit would be very limited and very short," Ferriter said.

But perhaps the most poignant political point came from Wendy Black. With MSHA conducting the investigation into a mine disaster—the same agency that approved the Crandall mining operation and, later, the rescue plans—Wendy had one question for the congressmen: "Now, explain something to me: How do you investigate yourselves?" Dead silence met her query.

For the Allreds the Washington testimony was another step toward healing. Mike Marasco said he thought the hearings had gone well and had given him a sense of relief. Afterward Steve Allred looked like a drained man. Sitting on the steps of the Capitol, he stared out at the Washington traffic. "This is all helping me," he said. "It's not closure. But it's a start. It's helping."