WASHINGTON – Gage Phillips sometimes doesn't understand why his dad can't come home from work at the Crandall Canyon Mine.
Although the 5-year-old doesn't fully grasp that his father was one of six miners killed in an August collapse at the Utah mine,his grandmother is making sure Brandon Phillips' death isn't in vain.
“It's hard to have hope,only to have your heart broken,” said Sheila Phillips,Brandon's mother,to the House Committee on Education and Labor on Wednesday.
Three rescue workers also were killed in an attempt to rescue the trapped miners.
Pausing to wipe tears away during her testimony,Phillips said she wants officials find the bodies of the miners so they can be buried.
“I just miss him,” she said,holding Gage on her lap at the witness table. “I would like to know where my son is in that hole.”
Nine family members of victims testified before the committee,with more sitting in the audience.
The miners shouldn't have been working in Crandall Canyon,said Steve Allred,a disabled coal miner whose brother,Kerry Allred,was killed in the first collapse. Most of the mine's coal was removed and the remaining deposits shouldn't have been removed,he said.
The practice in use at Crandall Canyon,called retreat mining,is used commonly. Workers remove remaining supports in a mine,which contain coal,allowing the mine to collapse behind them.
“There wasn't enough barriers left,or enough support,” Allred said. “The rest of the mine had been long hauled out. I looked at the maps,and I've been in mining 27 years,and I shook my head.
“There was absolutely nothing to hold that mine up.”
Crandall Canyon's retreat mining plan,which was approved by the Mining Safety and Health Administration,is being scrutinized by investigators and congressional leaders. Members of Congress and the miners' families want to know why the plan was approved,especially since most of the mine's coal had already been removed.
“You have raised questions that need answers,” Rep. Rob Bishop,R-Utah,said. “I am sure this committee will not be satisfied until there are answers to the questions that have been raised.”
The tragedy at Crandall Canyon is a reminder that better technology should be developed so miners have a reliable way to communicate and be tracked in an emergency,said Bruce Watzman,vice president of safety,health and human resources at the National Mining Association,which represents mine owners.
Wendy Black,whose husband,Dale Black,was killed while trying to rescue the trapped miners,said workers knew the mine wasn't safe. A miner since 1984,Dale Black had never been afraid to do his job until near the end of his life,Wendy Black said. On the night before the first collapse,Dale Black told his wife the mine was experiencing tremors that registered on the Richter scale.
The men at the mine previously voiced concern about the tremors,but were told to work anyway,Wendy Black said.
“I honestly believe if they had listened to some of the other men,it could have all been prevented from the beginning,” she said.
Less-experienced miners may have not spoken out for fear of being moved to a graveyard shift,Black said.
Safety also was a concern for Manual Sanchez,who was killed in the first collapse,said Cesar Sanchez,his brother.
“He was concerned about safety and asked for a meeting,” Sanchez said,with his brother's wedding photo in front of him. “The meeting never took place. Manny said the mine safety was not right.”
The day Manual Sanchez was killed was supposed to be his last on the job. Cesar Sanchez was trying to get his brother a job at a mine in Wyoming.
During the aftermath of the collapse,communication with the families of the miners was a mess,said Michael Marasco,Kerry Allred's son-in-law. Families were given false information,and a translator wasn't provided for two days for those who spoke Spanish.
“I'd like to see efforts to communicate openly and honestly with the families,” he said. “The families deserve to be told the truth.”
The MSHA did provide a liaison to families,but those who testified said the federal agency didn't treat them well,either.
“The MSHA is supposed to be the one to communicate with families and the press and they are to pass out correct information,” said Cecil Roberts,president of the United Mine Workers of America's International Union.
Sheila Phillips said she won't let the tragedy be forgotten,and Gage will know how his father died when he's old enough.
“I'm going to tell him what happened,” she said.