On September 17, 2003, at approximately 6:00 a.m., William P. Birchfield, age 37, a dozer operator, and Rodney W. Sheets, age 47, a highwall drill operator, both employed by Progress Coal were fatally injured when the Ford E-350 portal van they were passengers in was run over by a Euclid R190 rock truck in the 2500 Hitachi Back-Hoe Pit (2500 Hoe Pit) at the Twilight MTR Surface Mine. Matthew L. Adkins, age 28, track-hoe operator and driver of the portal van, received serious injuries as a result of the accident.
Prior to the accident, a lack of proper communication between the portal van driver and the rock truck driver resulted in the rock truck driver mistaking the location of the van. The portal van approached the rock truck from the off-side blind spot, without first receiving positive confirmation from the rock truck driver, and pulled in front of the rock truck to deliver supplies. The accident then occurred as the driver moved the rock truck forward without first making certain, by signal or other means, that all persons were clear. An inoperable strobe light on the roof of the van also contributed to the accident, as it could have alerted the rock truck driver of the presence of the van.
At approximately 5:30 a.m., on September 17, 2003, members of the day shift crew arrived in the mine parking lot. There, William P. Birchfield, dozer operator, Rodney W. Sheets, highwall drill operator, Glen Akers, dozer operator, and Lawrence Fox, rock truck driver, boarded a Ford E-350, portal van driven by Matthew L. Adkins, track-hoe operator. Prior to leaving the parking lot, Gordon "Stan" Mills, rock truck driver, asked Adkins to obtain toilet paper supplies from the warehouse for him.
Adkins, with passengers Birchfield, Sheets, Akers, and Fox, drove the portal van approximately one mile to the warehouse, where he parked for five to seven minutes while obtaining supplies. He then drove the portal van approximately 400-500 feet from the warehouse, where he dropped off Fox at his rock truck before proceeding to James Creek Road, where he dropped off Akers at his dozer. Adkins, Birchfield, and Sheets then traveled to the 2500 Hoe Pit, located approximately 1½ miles from the warehouse.
Meanwhile, Mills conducted a pre-operational check of his rock truck and traveled to the 2500 Hoe Pit, stopping approximately 270 feet away from the Hitachi Model 2500 Track-hoe. Edmond Dotson, another Euclid R190 rock truck driver, also completed a pre-operational check and drove his rock truck from the parking lot toward the 2500 Hoe Pit. While traveling to the pit, Dotson observed the portal van approaching the intersection of the James Creek Road and the 2500 Hoe Pit access road. Dotson stopped and allowed the van to cross in front of him. The van then proceeded into the pit ahead of Dotson's rock truck.
Shortly before 6:00 a.m., Charles Hager, mechanic, finished servicing the 2500 Track-hoe. Hager left the track-hoe dome lights and small entrance lights illuminated as he left the pit. He passed Mills' rock truck, which was still parked in the pit approximately 270 feet from and facing the track-hoe. Hager then passed the portal van at the bottom of the 2500 Hoe Pit entrance ramp, followed by Dotson, who was now approximately halfway down the 2500 Hoe Pit access road.
As Adkins drove the portal van into the pit, he observed Mills' parked rock truck. Dotson stopped his rock truck approximately 300 feet behind Mills' truck and started cleaning the interior of his truck. As the portal van approached to within approximately 50-60 yards of Mills' truck, Adkins radioed a message for Mills to get his supplies. Adkins intended for Mills to climb down from the truck cab and meet him at the rock truck's current location. To facilitate transfer of supplies to Mills, Adkins parked the portal van in front of the rock truck bumper, with the driver-side door of the van aligned with the access ladder on the off-side of the truck.
Mills was leaning down, getting ear plugs out of his dinner bucket, and did not see the headlights on the approaching portal van when he heard Adkins' transmission. He looked toward the track-hoe, which Adkins was scheduled to operate that shift, saw its illuminated dome light, and assumed that Adkins had called from the track-hoe. Mills moved the truck forward, with the intent of meeting Adkins at the track-hoe, striking the portal van with his right front bumper.
Dotson heard someone say, "Whoa Stan" over the radio. He looked toward the rock truck and saw the van being shoved sideways. Dotson grabbed his radio microphone and started shouting for Mills to stop. Upon hearing Dotson's transmission, Mills applied the truck's brake. By the time the truck stopped, the van had rolled over onto its roof and was crushed under the rock truck's bumper/frame and right front tire. Not yet realizing that he had struck the van, Mills asked if he needed to come the other way. Dotson replied, "No Stan, stop, you've run over the van."
Dotson switched his radio to channel one and requested help, Emergency Medical Technicians, and for someone to call 911. Mills set the brakes and dismounted the rock truck. Dotson drove to the accident scene, where he parked his truck and then proceeded to the van to provide assistance.
Shortly thereafter, mine emergency personnel arrived on the scene and initiated rescue and recovery operations. The Whitesville and Van Fire and Rescue Departments, Boone County Ambulance Authority, Boone County Sheriff's Department, and the West Virginia State Police responded to the accident site. Adkins was removed from the van at approximately 7:15 a.m. and was transported to the Charleston General Hospital. Birchfield and Sheets were pronounced dead at 6:37 a.m. They were removed from the van at approximately 9:30 a.m. and were transported to Boone Memorial Hospital before being transferred to the West Virginia Medical Examiner's Office in Charleston, West Virginia. The Boone County Sheriff's Department and the West Virginia State Police conducted an investigation and obtained statements from witnesses.