Family members of victims of Utah's Crandall Canyon mine disaster gave lawmakers startling accounts, claiming mine operator Bob Murray ignored dangerous conditions both before and after two mine collapses, and that he callously mistreated the grieving families. The initial cave-in killed six men. A second collapse, 10 days later, killed three more miners, who were working on the rescue effort.
At a House Education and Labor Committee hearing, the families also faulted the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration for poor oversight of the mine.
"From Day One we have been let down by Mr. Murray and by MSHA," said Mike Marasco, who lost his father-in-law, Kerry Allred, in the disaster. "The manner in which Murray and MSHA approached the families for the first two weeks after the collapse was unbelievable. They just told us what we wanted to hear, and not the facts. … Murray more than once yelled at us when we would ask questions."
Allred's brother Steve called the safety conditions a game of Russian roulette for the miners, with a "gun pointed right at their head," saying that Murray threatened to reprimand employees if they talked to family members about what was going on at the mine.
"Had the mine operator been responsible, held accountable by the United Mine Workers Association and by MSHA, my brother would not have died," said Steve Allred.
Cesar Sanchez's brother Manuel was so concerned about the mine conditions that he was about to leave his job there just before the first cave-in Monday, Aug. 6.
"The Sunday/Monday shift was his last scheduled workday for him," said Sanchez. "Unfortunately, he did not leave soon enough."
Sheila Phillips, holding her grandson Gage, wiped away tears as she told lawmakers about losing son Brandon Phillips.
"It's hard to have hope only to have your heart broken every day. It is hard to see your grandson left fatherless."
Phillips said she stopped attending meetings with Murray because she "couldn't stand to listen to the man."
Wendy Black's husband Dale died Aug. 16, 10 days after the initial cave-in, as he tried to rescue his co-workers, even though he had told his wife of the poor conditions in the mine on numerous occasions
"I feel in my heart that he was worried enough about this that he was letting me know what was going on. This was the night before the first collapse. He also said that the crew members had been discussing the bounces, and they were worried."
"MSHA has one job: mine safety health administration. It would have taken just one MSHA man doing his job to have saved my husband's life."
"If they would've listened to some of the men, it all could've been prevented," said Black.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., called Murray's conduct "unacceptable" as she and other lawmakers looked out at a witness table covered with photos of the victims.
"There is no excuse for this -- none!" said Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill.. "What have we become as a nation? What have we become as an industry? This is appalling treatment. You have a loss and then they kick you when you're down."
Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., apologized to the families because "your government let you down."
Lawmakers also heard testimony from officials from the United Mine Workers, United Steelworkers and the National Mining Association, as well as Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who outlined a Utah Mine Safety Commission that is investigating the incident.
"The families of all the miners who died and were injured deserve to have a full understanding of the circumstances that led to the deaths of their loved ones," Huntsman said.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts called the treatment of the families "atrocious," saying that "there was a clear and utter failure here and there's no other way to sugarcoat it."
Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said that neither Murray Energy Corp. nor the Labor Department had fully cooperated with the Committee, blaming the Labor Department for allowing Murray "to repeatedly provide false information to families and the public."
"We will not tolerate obstruction or delay from the Department of Labor," said Miller. "And we will not tolerate obstruction or delay from the Murray Energy Corp. or from Mr. Murray himself. We will take every action necessary to hold individuals responsible for what appears to have been a preventable tragedy. We believe it is critical to get to the truth of the events before, during and after this disaster in order to prevent another one."