Two more miners died in what investigators later concluded was a preventable conveyer belt fire. Preventable because the mine's owner, Richmond, Va.-based coal giant Massey Energy violated numerous state and federal safety standards.
Some violations led to the fire, others caused miners Don I. Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield to get lost in the thick, choking smoke, where rescuers found them dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
"I think what makes ours more discomforting is that it did come on the heals of Sago and all the warning signs that had been given in Aracoma and had been ignored," says Bruce Stanley, a lawyer suing Massey on behalf of Hatfield's and Bragg's widows. "Then to see Aracoma happen on the heals of that, that's a lot to ask people to bear."
Massey resumed production at Aracoma in July after correcting problems found by state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training investigators. The fire remains the target of federal civil and criminal probes.
Chief Executive Don Blankenship responded to an interview request by e-mail. "The changes at the mine are too numerous to mention," he said. "But essentially we have greatly upgraded our fire suppression system."
Unlike International Coal Group, which closed Sago on the first anniversary of the explosion, Massey planned to run coal Friday. "The mine will run after a plaque presentation ceremony, prayer and a safety meeting," Blankenship said.
The state's reaction to Aracoma was swift.
Gov. Joe Manchin ordered safety legislation to be ready in 48 hours and persuaded the Legislature to pass it in just a day. Other coal states and eventually Congress followed suit, but many of those mandates remain unmet.
And work on key problems at Aracoma is just getting started.
Even Manchin concedes, "We've got a lot more to do."
Mines still routinely use conveyer belt tunnels to pump fresh air underground, a practice the United Mine Workers contends fanned the Aracoma fire by pumping oxygen on the flames. And Manchin, who has promised to make West Virginia the nation's safest mining state, took nearly a full year to propose belt-air legislation and a law to allow inspectors to close mines for repeat violations of safety laws.
"The larger, more reputable operations are certainly trying," said UMW health and safety director Dennis O'Dell. "I think there are some skeptics out there that continue to say that changes can't be made overnight and so they drag their feet. They worry about what the cost is going to be."
And with good reason. The Congressional Budget Office estimated federal legislation passed last year will cost the industry $128 million -- but that figure doesn't include some costs, such as lost production when miners are training.
One thing that hasn't been done is finding a way to address mistakes by mine inspectors. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration reviews its own actions in each serious accident and director Richard Stickler says he's comfortable with his tools for dealing with poor performance.
The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, on the other hand, can't fire inspectors who miss problems. The agency has conceded its inspectors overlooked missing air control walls and other problems. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has reassigned two inspectors responsible for examining Aracoma to its academy in Beaver pending an investigation.
"The power structure of mine safety was disregarded in the case of Aracoma," says J. Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA director who conducted parallel Sago and Aracoma investigations for Manchin. "There hasn't been a significant undertaking to change the situation."
Manchin says he's not in favor of disciplining inspectors until the state has exhausted every possible way to improve their performance with training and management tools. "Do we have the proper management tools in place?" he says.
There has, however, been progress.
For instance, the state is buying equipment and training inspectors for two new mine rescue teams.
And three of the largest U.S. coal companies -- St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, Linthicum Heights, Md.-based Foundation Coal, and Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy -- say they expect to meet the state's deadline.
Manchin says the agonizing search at Sago, where rescuers had no way of knowing the location of 13 miners trapped by the explosion made him realize that communications and tracking were vital. That message was driven home at Aracoma, where dozens of rescuers were sent underground. "That definitely tells me that we have to have tracking and communications," Manchin says.
West Virginia, which has the second highest number of underground coal mines, last year approved a regulation that gives mines until July 31 to submit plans for installing wireless communications and tracking devices.
Officials with three of the nation's largest mine operators -- Foundation, Consol and Peabody -- recently told state officials they expect to meet that deadline with so-called leaky feeder systems that rely on wires and handheld radios.
Such systems provide good coverage underground, even allowing communications around obstructions such as coal pillars left as roof supports, says George Allekotte, chief electrical engineer for Foundation's Pennsylvania Services Corp. subsidiary.
Tracking is a bit more complicated, but Allekotte and Consol senior electrical engineer John Burr say they will have electronic tags that track miners during normal operations. They say they should work after explosions or fires, but may not receive MSHA approval by next summer. The tags, which attach to a miner's cap lamp, have been submitted for MSHA approval, but electric readers have not.
The progress is good news, says Steve Webber, a member of the state's Mine Safety Technology Task Force. "I'm impressed and encouraged."