Survivors of a 2006 West Virginia coal mine fire that killed two men blamed a missing wall designed to control air flow for flooding an escape route with smoke during testimony in a wrongful death lawsuit against Massey Energy Co. on Wednesday.

Miners Steve Hensley and Mike Shull told jurors their crew ran into a wall of smoke as they tried to evacuate through the primary escape tunnel at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in Logan County. Co-workers Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 46, and Don Bragg, 33, died after getting separated from their crew in what Hensley and Shull called zero-visibility conditions and failing to feel their way to an alternate escape route.

The miners’ widows sued Richmond, Va.-based Massey, two subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship in Logan County Circuit Court. Defense attorneys contend the conveyer belt fire was an accident and their clients’ actions don’t rise to the level necessary to award damages.

“It was like you turned out the light,” said Hensley, who was driving the 12-man crew’s vehicle out of the mine. The crew got out of the vehicle and were donning emergency air packs, when Hensley heard Hatfield struggle with the device.

“The last words I heard Elvis Hatfield say was, ’How do you put this thing on?”’ said Hensley, adding that he presumed Hatfield succeeded because he stopped asking for help.

Until the crew hit thick smoke, Hensley and Shull said they were relatively calm and assumed they were off to fight a small fire. And they said they felt safe because they thought they were in an isolated escape route that would remain free of smoke.

Under questioning from Niall Paul, an attorney for Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co., both men blamed a missing air control wall, called a stopping, for breaching the escape route. Government investigations concluded the stopping had been removed to make room for equipment. Its absence went unnoticed by federal and state safety inspectors.

Paul is trying to show a lack of deliberate intent by Aracoma to expose miners to conditions that could kill them. He asked Hensley whether he could name any person who would have known smoke from a fire would enter the escape route because of the missing stopping.

“Anybody knows coal mining, with those stoppings out, (knew) where smoke was going to go,” said Hensley, who is a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit against Massey along with Shull and other survivors.

In response to Paul’s questioning, Shull said he couldn’t name anyone who might have taken the wall out.

“I don’t know who knocked those stoppings. Somebody did,” Shull said. “So somebody did expose us.”

Inspectors from the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state concluded in their investigations that missing air control walls and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors in the deaths. Investigators also found that water lines for fire hoses and sprinklers at the scene of the fire were shut off and that fire hoses couldn’t be connected because of incompatible fittings, a problem that had been reported to management after a similar fire on Dec. 23, 2005.

Also testifying was West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training inspector Eugene White, who guided jurors through the state’s investigation, which cited Aracoma for seven violations that investigators found contributed to the deaths.

The January 2006 fire happened 17 days after 12 miners died following an explosion at the Sago Mine in northern West Virginia. Both accidents led to sweeping state and federal mine safety legislation.

Massey is appealing $1.5 million in fines for 25 violations that MSHA concluded contributed to the deaths.

The fire also remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston. Several current and former Massey and Aracoma employees invoked their constitutional right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify Wednesday.

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