Medical Examiner Helps With Coal Mine Disaster
While most local residents could only watch and pray during the mine tragedy last week in Raleigh County, Wetzel/Tyler County Medical Examiner Carla McBee was lending her services to the effort.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Charleston had called in three of the state’s most senior medical examiners including McBee, Marshall County Medical Examiner Carol Robinson, and Wood County Medical Examiner Mike St. Clair. They were asked to come and assist, on a volunteer basis, with the operations associated with the disaster created from the April 5 explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal. The incident ended up claiming the lives of 29 men in the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970.
McBee went to Charleston Wednesday evening with hopes there would be some victims recovered by early Thursday morning. However, that hurry-up-and-wait situation lasted a while as toxic levels were too high to conduct rescue and recovery efforts. During that time the volunteers worked in the office answering phones and doing anything that was needed to fill the shoes while the investigators did the disaster duty at the mine.
On Friday and Saturday crews were finally able to begin operations. Ambulances started bringing the recovered miners to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for examination and cause of death. She said they would go through the whole process of what they normally would do in identifying a person that was unidentifiable. McBee helped with the process of examining personal equipment, names on clothing, x-rays, dental work, and tattoos.
While some may consider the operation in which McBee was involved to be morbid, it is a necessary job and one that at least brings closure to the families of the deceased miners.
“The families were so brave and wanted to know how we were doing,” noted McBee with amazement. “West Virginians are good people. They are just strong, brave, good people.”
The state had called in every pathologist and every investigator was on call. “They all worked hard,” said McBee. “They were a really good team.” The extra personnel helped to speed up the process. A caseload of three to four cases a day is taxing, but 29 from one incident is overwhelming. Unfortunately the recovery was not so fast that all 29 were extricated at once.
The last four bodies that they received were five miles down into the mine-about a two-hour trip in, two- hour extrication, two-hour trip out, then one hour back to the OCE office. When McBee left on Sunday there were still 13 miners left to identify.
In fact, they called her Sunday night and asked if she could come back Monday morning, but she wasn’t able to leave her local duties again.
In a similar gesture of good will, medical examiners from Ohio and Brooke counties covered Marshall, Wetzel, and Tyler counties while the team was in Charleston. “Thankfully there was nothing while we were gone,” noted McBee.