DEATH AT UPPER BIG BRANCH
In the morning darkness of April 5, 2010, Tommy Davis left his home with its cluttered yard for work. A sinewy, forty-three-year-old who rides Harleys and hunts black bears with a bow and arrow, Davis had worked at a Massey Energy Company surface mine for twelve years. Four months before, drawn by higher pay and the chance to work with as many as five of his relatives, including Cory, his son, he had transferred to Massey’s Upper Big Branch deep mine about forty-five minutes away in Raleigh County in the Coal River Valley.
The day before had been Easter Sunday. Work at Upper Big Branch had been suspended so miners could enjoy their usual paschal activities. Families attended church, searched for Easter eggs with their children, and ate baked ham dinners. An early shift had started at midnight but did little more than maintenance work. The first regular production run began at 6 A.M. Dawn that Monday, April 5, promised temperatures in the 70s, unusually warm for the fickle early spring of southern West Virginia. There, snow showers and wind quickly change back and forth into sunny days that bring out ramps, a wild-growing onion with a pungent garlic aroma that is a seasonal delicacy in this part of Appalachia, and the chirping of spring peeper frogs.
Known as UBB, the fifteen-year-old mine is nestled on the west side of a narrow valley marked by Coal River, which after spring rains is a brown, wildly churning stream capped by small wavelets of white water. Potato chip bags, bits of clothing, and other trash cling to tree limbs after floods push the river over its banks. Next to it, on a CSX Transportation rail branch line, hopper cars clatter in for loading at the valley’s half a dozen or so mining operations. Scattered here and there amid the hardwood trees and rock outcrops are reminders of just how hazardous coal work can be. Occasional roads of industrial-grade gravel leading to coal mines have signs boldly lettered AMBULANCE ENTRANCE.
UBB was operated by Performance Coal, one of Massey Energy’s more than forty subsidiaries that had been overseen by former Massey Energy board chairman and chief executive officer Donald Blankenship, who is a tall, jowly man with a prominent double chin and steady, penetrating stare. Coal River, about thirty miles south of the state capital of Charleston, has been the epicenter of a drama that has featured the highly controversial Blankenship for more than a decade. A native of Central Appalachia, Blankenship parlayed an extraordinary gift for crunching numbers with an indefatigable work ethic he learned from his single mother into becoming Big Coal’s best-known, and most notorious, corporate executive.
As he did at many of his company’s operations, Blankenship flew around in a company helicopter like a twenty-first-century William Westmoreland, the celebrity general of Vietnam War fame whose penchant for statistics and body counts has become legend. Blankenship moved about, checking production numbers here and solving minor problems there, such as micromanaging when and if an overtime shift got a lunch break. He spent much of his time pushing faster, more efficient, and cheaper production, demanding reports of the output of each mine several times during each work shift. He battled safety and environmental regulators; bankrolled state political candidates who favored the coal industry, including judges; and waged an intense public relations war against ecological activists, whom he despised and dubbed “greeniacs.” His cantankerous ploys were often successful. He was effective in his move to block national legislation stemming coal-related emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. His tenacity prevailed when a West Virginia judge ruled that big concrete silos filled with coal did not harm mountain schoolchildren at the Marsh Fork Elementary School near Massey’s huge Edwight “mountaintop removal” surface mine in the Coal River Valley. This same mine also has a 3.8-billion-gallon pond of dark toxic sludge from mine tailings held back by an earthen dam high above the school. While Massey eventually contributed to build a new school at a different location, children for years endured the threat of breathing carcinogenic compounds from coal dust and drowning from a possible dam break.
In this type of mining, which became widespread in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky over the past two decades and has been targeted by celebrity protests and local ecologists who regularly employ guerrilla tactics to snare media attention, hundreds of feet of dirt, rock, and trees—“overburden” in mining company parlance—are lopped off like the cap of a Coca-Cola bottle by powerful explosives and gigantic drag lines.
UBB is a deep mine situated a few miles north of Edwight on the same side of the road. Unlike strip mines on the surface, deep mines can run thousands of feet into the earth. The aboveground section of the deep mine is a tangle of metal buildings, conveyor belts, and tall supporting towers that jut up dramatically from the narrow valley. The mine is of crucial importance to Massey because it taps the Eagle Seam of incredibly rich metallurgical coal that is in tremendous demand, especially in Asian countries such as China that are in a construction boom, building skyscrapers, bridges, and high-speed passenger trains. Despite the Great Recession, demand had started spiking for metallurgical coal in late 2009 and kept pace through the following two years. During the first half of 2010, met coal exports from the United States would reach 39.8 million tons, a 62 percent increase. Another advantage of Eagle Seam coal, as with most of the product in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, is that it can also be used to fire giant steam generators at electric power plants in the United States, which depend on coal for at least 45 percent of their electricity.
Despite its long-standing reputation for cutting corners and costs, Massey Energy was struggling to catch up with the unexpected Asian boom. In 2009, Upper Big Branch was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration 515 times for safety violations, nearly twice the national average. It was fined a total of $382,000 just for UBB in 2009. During the previous month alone, UBB had been closed for safety violations more than sixty-one times by MSHA—more than any other mine in the country. Massey officials had a perpetual feud with MSHA over changes in ventilation plans at the mine. Since January 2009, the mine had been cited forty-eight times for air-related problems. Miners were fearful of the erratic airflows and the unusually high number of air-lock doors. These are like watertight doors on a ship and can be shut to manipulate airflow. They are cheaper to install than other, safer types that don’t break the airflow pattern when opened and are less prone to being opened or closed unintentionally. At UBB, the doors were constantly being opened for work. Air is critical in any mine, but it was especially important at a huge one like Upper Big Branch, whose geology was unusually “gassy” with methane and whose shafts stretched for miles underground. Workers in such mines are more prone to injury or death by being ripped apart or crushed by debris from an explosion, burned by fire, or suffocated by toxic gases such as methane or carbon monoxide.
Many claim that Massey Energy was under intense financial pressure to produce, since its stock price had been sagging. According to a lawsuit filed on April 29, 2010, by the Macomb County Employees Retirement System, an institutional investor in Massey stock, “the number of violations at Massey mines had dramatically spiked in 2009 as the Company ramped up production attempting to reverse a year-long slide in profitability during which its stock price had collapsed from more than $80 per share to as low as $10 a share.”
Still, to miners like Tommy Davis, Massey was a godsend. Unemployment was running better than 10 percent in Raleigh and surrounding counties. If there were jobs in the tiny burgs that dot the hollows, they tended to be at gas stations, pizza joints, or the ubiquitous Dollar General stores offering cheap merchandise. Fast-food jobs like McDonald’s can be thirty miles away, and low-paying work at a Walmart farther still in places such as Charleston or Beckley. Mining, by contrast, paid upward of sixty-eight thousand dollars a year, or more than double the state average annual salary. Deep-mining could pay even more. “You might make twenty-four dollars an hour at the surface mine, but in a deep mine, I make thirty-one an hour. That’s a hundred forty to a hundred fifty dollars a day more,” Tommy Davis said. The extra money was a big help when it came to paying the bills and raising children, not to mention his love of motorcycles and pickup trucks, which sit in his yard.
On that Monday after Easter, Tommy Davis parked his car at the mine and hopped aboard a mantrip, a kind of low-slung truck or railcar that can carry up to thirteen miners stuffed aboard with their helmets; battery packs; metatarsal-protective, steel-toed boots; and self-rescuers—temporary breathing apparatuses used if the mine becomes smoky or otherwise short of air. The shift began with problems. After being closed for the holiday, some sections of the mine had been flooded by underground water. Workers dealing with pumps had gone to work wearing long johns and heavy pants, since they expected to work in the cold. “You would have a thermal shirt on, a jacket, gloves, or a beanie … but that day was miserably hot,” miner David Farley recalls. Some men even stripped to their shorts. Another oddity: air seemed to be flowing in an opposite direction that morning. Miners later recalled it being a telltale sign that something wasn’t right.
One miner who seemed especially spooked going to work that day was Gary Wayne Quarles, a thirty-three-year-old man so large and round at three hundred pounds that he was nicknamed Spanky. He had just gone through a painful divorce and was staying with his father, also a miner and also named Gary, and his mother, Patty, at their trim double-wide trailer home off a small creek near Naoma not far from Upper Big Branch. Besides doting on his eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, Quarles enjoyed hunting for deer and wild turkey with his father and friends. The night before, he had gone out to a Hooters restaurant in Beckley. With him were Jason Gautier, a former Massey employee then working with another coal firm, and Nicolas McCroskey, also a Massey worker. Quarles was morose at the meal. He and McCroskey told their colleague that “something bad was going to happen” at Upper Big Branch. The next morning, the younger Quarles anxiously went to his job.
The same morning, Tommy Davis’s mantrip entered the mine at a downward angle and traveled miles into and hundreds of feet beneath the mountain surface. Going to work was a family affair for Davis, and then some. Of the sixty-one miners working the 6 A.M. to 3 P.M. shift, there was his twenty-one-year-old son, Cory, and his brother Timmy. A nephew, Josh Napper, was a newcomer who had moved in with his grandparents not far from Dawes to work the coalfields because he had lost his job as a registered nurse in south central Ohio. Another nephew, Cody, was also on the shift.
The mantrip ride took about half an hour and transported the miners nearly five miles into the mountain to a longwall mining apparatus. Other miners went to another section hundreds of yards away that was being prepared for a repositioning of the longwall device at a later date. Considered the most efficient and profitable method of deep-mining, the longwall is a massive and expensive drilling rig that runs one thousand feet, back and forth, ripping out coal. Its spearhead consists of two devices called “shearers,” which are covered with ultra-hard bits and 158 water-spray nozzles to keep coal dust down. The shearers roar back and forth, up and down, a seam. At one end, called a head end, coal is pushed onto conveyors, belts that whisk it miles to the surface, where it can be classified, washed, and prepared for shipment by railcar or truck to domestic or global customers. When the device reaches the “tail end,” it reverses course and moves back to the head end again, screaming and straining as it rips out big chunks of black coal. Typically, the mined area, held up by hydraulic jacks from the tremendous force of the mountain bearing down on it, is eventually buried as the jacks are moved and the mine roof collapses behind it after miners and machinery are moved away. The longwall device then moves ahead, eating into the mountain. Gary Wayne Quarles was one of several miners operating the device that day.
Davis said it seemed a routine shift. He spent part of his time laying track in the area where the longwall was due to be placed. “It’s pretty low, maybe fifty inches in the highest part, and I’m six foot four inches tall,” he said. “In some sections, you have to crawl on your hands and knees.” Some of his relatives were on roof-bolting assignment that involved pounding metal bolts the size of car hubcaps into the mine ceiling to hold up the roof. According to a MSHA report, Massey supervisors on the surface got a call from miners near the coalface at 7:30 A.M. About 11 A.M., the longwall machine ran into a problem and shut down. A retainer holding a hinge for a ranging arm had come loose. Without it, the longwall could not operate. That cost money for Massey, then struggling to boost its stock price after production flaws had tanked it to the ten-dollars-a-share level. After repairs and tests, the longwall machine resumed operation at 2:15 P.M., toward the end of the shift. Up top, miners started to prepare for the next shift as they gathered their gear, including their heavy mine jackets marked by fluorescent orange and silver stripes—Massey Energy’s colors.
Down below, around 2:30 P.M., Davis and a nephew quit their shifts a little early and started heading for the surface on the mantrip, stopping for a few moments to chat with his son and others. It was, he said, the usual macho miner camaraderie “trying to get each other’s goat.” He and his nephew were about two hundred feet from the surface when he suddenly felt the wind at his back. His nephew jumped and took shelter in front of the mantrip, and Davis started running for the opening. Moments later came a second whoosh of air, this one far more powerful. “I felt this wind and all this shit coming out—rocks and wood. I made it outside and was trying to get my bearings. I thought it was a major rockfall, but then I remember them all back there: my son, my brother, my nephew, and the others.”
Another surviving miner, Steven Smith, described the experience this way: “Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn’t hear, and the next thing you know, it’s just like you’re in the middle of a tornado.”
* * *
A massive explosion had ripped through UBB’s maze of shafts, headgates, tailgates, and mining rooms, rolling at least seven miles underground, turning abruptly at right angles along shafts and, at times, looping around and inundating the same spaces twice. MSHA investigators believe the blast started when the longwall machine hit a stretch of sandstone. Shearer bits on the longwall machine created a big splash of sparks as it hit. “Coal and shale are soft and the shearer can bore right through them. But sandstone sparks quite a bit,” says Gary Stover, a former Massey mine engineer who now brokers coal-land deals for Penn Virginia Resource Partners in Chesapeake, West Virginia. The sandstone was apparently so tough that some of the carbide-tipped bits on the shearer had been stripped down to bare steel, further increasing the chances of spitting out sparks.
MSHA officials believe that at 3:02 P.M. a small bubble of methane gas roughly the size of a basketball shot out from the coalface as the shearer hit sandstone. Sparks from the shearer ignited it. The flame blossomed for up to ninety seconds. Incredibly, someone had shut off the water sprayed by the jets in the shearer that are designed to quell flames in exactly this type of situation. During that critical minute and a half or so, the methane flames touched off loose coal dust that was found at high levels through the various mine shafts. In the right mix of air, coal dust can be as explosive as trinitrotoluene (TNT). Water sprays, robust air ventilation, and limestone coatings are used to keep it in check. None worked.
Terrified miners scrambled for their lives, crawling away as fast as they could. One of them was Gary Wayne Quarles, who had been operating the longwall with Joel Price, Christopher Bell, and Dillard Persinger. They obviously knew something was terribly wrong, because they tried to get away quickly. But it was no use. The tremendous blast forces roared to the south away from them but made two left-hand, 90-degree turns at shafts and then zipped back within seconds to engulf them. Their bodies were found about a third of the way down the longwall headgate. The blast forces fed on themselves and raced through the underground corridors with such force that equipment was smashed and some miners were decapitated. Tommy Davis’s son, brother, and nephew were killed in the new headgate section, thousands of feet from the source of the explosion. In another section, the remains of Nicolas McCroskey, the miner who had had supper with Gary Wayne Quarles at Hooters the night before the blast, were smashed onto a shaft ceiling. The body wouldn’t be found for several days, even though rescuers had passed by several times. McCroskey was discovered only when the stench of his rotting body forced rescuers to look up and not down as they had been doing.
The blast ripped through the longwall room and into various shafts around it. What miners weren’t killed by the blast trauma suffocated when the powerful explosion sucked air out of the mine shafts and replaced it with toxic carbon monoxide. It happened so quickly that miners didn’t have the mere seconds of time it took to don self-rescuer face masks.
Later, when poisonous gases had cleared enough to allow investigators to enter, they found that the shearer bits were worn and water sprays on it were not working. Among its many accusations against Massey, MSHA claimed that the firm had failed to spread enough noncombustible crushed limestone on surfaces in the shafts to prevent just such a coal-dust explosion. Just the month before, MSHA had cited Massey for not properly ventilating methane gas at the mine, and coal dust had been a problem at other Massey operations. Massey officials dispute MSHA’s claims, saying that photographs taken at the coalface later revealed that curious slits had opened up at the mine-room floor near the tailgate section. This suggests that somehow cracks in the earth had split open—perhaps from a natural seismic event—and methane gas from a coal seam beneath the one being mined wafted up and exploded. If so, it was an event out of Massey’s control. As late as June 2010, two months after the blast, Bobby Ray Inman, a retired navy admiral who is the former head of the ultrasecret National Security Agency and was lead independent director at the time of the blast and chairman of the Massey board of directors after Blankenship was forced out, was still claiming that the UBB blast was “an act of God.”
* * *
Up on the surface, the blast sparked mass confusion. Several miles to the south of UBB on Route 3, the only road to the mine, Gary Jarrell was working the cash register at the 125-year-old Jarrell General Store. It’s a classic country outlet selling cans of pork and beans, bread, soft drinks, and cigarettes. Managers cash paychecks for trusted customers. On that afternoon, Jarrell says he didn’t hear anything and doesn’t remember the time, but he suddenly noticed that one, then two ambulances were racing northward on the highway. “That was not unusual, we thought there might have been a wreck. But they kept coming and coming. Then police cars. Then fire engines. Rumors were flying about which mine it was.”
As they had under Blankenship’s leadership for years, Massey officials instinctively circled their wagons. According to Charleston Gazette, at 3:30 P.M., for example, an unidentified Massey official called the state’s industrial accident hotline to report “an air reversal on the beltlines” and increased levels of carbon monoxide. The mine was being evacuated. “Thank you, sir,” the hotline operator said. “You have a nice day.”
“You do the same,” replied the Massey official.
There were conflicting reports of what had happened and when. MSHA said the blast was touched off at 3:02 P.M., but Massey’s internal monitoring data shows that carbon monoxide alarms started going dead six minutes later. Massey officials claim that they had a rescue team at the mine by 4 P.M., but state and federal regulators said that Massey didn’t contact them about the blast until 3:27 P.M, so it would take at least another hour and a half before federal rescue teams were there. Consol Energy, a major mining firm, immediately sent its own company rescue team, but the crew left in disgust, saying that with the sloppy way Massey Energy officials were handling the rescue, it would be too dangerous to stay. Lynn Seay, a spokeswoman for Consol, says, “based on information our internal experts were able to ascertain throughout the week of April 5, 2010, at UBB, Consol Energy made the call not to participate in the operations.”
Chris Blanchard, president of Performance Coal; Jason Whitehead; and two other Massey managers were in the mine for several hours. None had appropriate mine rescue training. Questions were raised regarding what their purpose was in the mine when their presence violated rescue safety protocols. When questioned later by regulators why they had entered the mine and what they did while there, both Blanchard and Whitehead invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
One of the survivors they came across was Timothy Blake, a roof bolter with thirty-eight years’ experience who had spent a year at Upper Big Branch. He had been on a mantrip leaving his shift with Steve Harrah, James Woods, Bill Lynch, Carl Acord, Jason Atkins, Benny Willingham, Robert Clark, and Deward Scott. Speaking of the explosion, he said, “Everything just went black. It was like sitting in the middle of a hurricane, things flying, hitting you.” He says he struggled to get his self-rescuer and air unit on, but in the mayhem and toxic air, he couldn’t find his goggles. He heard gurgling. “It was my buddy beside me, [Jason Atkins,] the twenty-three-year-old boy.… He couldn’t get his rescuer on.” Neither could others on the mantrip. Blake frantically tried to help. He stayed with the others, waiting for nearly an hour, but his air supply was becoming dangerously low. He had to move or die. He felt for pulses on the miners around him. All had a pulse except for one. “I had to leave. It was the hardest thing I ever done.”
Staggering up the mine shaft toward the surface, Blake ran into the Blanchard group of Massey executives, who, without waiting for a proper rescue team, raced into the mine. They had been working their way through the mine but were stopped when they had to remove debris. “We didn’t know what we had, so we was just trying to be careful and watch exactly everything as we went,” says Pat Hilbert, a foreman with the Blanchard crew. Then he says, “they saw a single light walking towards us.” It was Blake, dazed and stumbling. Hilbert found the group Blake had left on a mantrip. By then, six were dead and one later died after being removed from the mine. The rescuers were trying to reach a rescue chamber that could be sealed airtight in an emergency near the longwall operation. When they did, they found more dead miners. By one account, some bodies were so mutilated that the first team walked past them without recognizing them.
The firm issued a press release about the explosion just before 5 P.M., saying that an event had happened and information about miners was “uncertain.” About a quarter hour later, a dispatcher with the state Homeland Security group called Jeff Gillenwater, Massey’s media spokesman, begging for details. “My director is all over my backside wanting information,” he told Gillenwater. Known for blunting media inquiries, Gillenwater simply referred the dispatcher to the press release offering no details. Other first responders were more in the loop. One company official told a Raleigh County 911 dispatcher that at least twenty-eight miners were missing. At 4:44 P.M., records show, Massey officials asked Raleigh County’s emergency coordinator for a helicopter to evacuate three injured miners. Finally, at 8:10 P.M., Massey announced just how serious the event was: seven dead miners and nineteen unaccounted for. The staging area for rescuers and families was at Whitesville, a scruffy, ancient mining town a few miles up State Route 3.
Governor Joe Manchin—a tall, stately looking Democrat who took the seat of West Virginia patriarch Robert Byrd in the U.S. Senate after he died in 2010—was in Florida on vacation to recoup from a tough session of the state legislature. When Manchin got a call from his communications director saying, “We may have a problem,” he said he’d get back as soon as possible. Manchin was no stranger to mine disasters, having gone through several as governor and losing an uncle in the 1968 mine explosion at Farmington that killed seventy-eight miners and involved the largest loss of life in a coal mine disaster since the early 1900s.
In the small town of Beaver, not far from Beckley and about forty minutes away, Terry Ellison, a middle-aged blond woman who runs a home-based business transcribing medical records, heard about the blast at 5:30 P.M. “A friend called me on my cell phone,” she said. “He had a police band radio scanner and had picked up the information.” Her younger brother, Steve Harrah, forty, had been a miner for Massey for ten years, although Ellison wasn’t sure where he worked. Massey moved miners around, and she said, “He didn’t talk to me much about it, because he knew I didn’t like him working in the mines.”
Harrah had spent Easter with his wife’s family and his six-year-old son. Ellison said, “He wanted a nice Easter meal because we lost our parents the previous year and it reminded him of ones we used to get. Then they ended up playing basketball until nine o’clock that night.”
She scrambled to find a ride to the mine and didn’t arrive until 7:30 P.M. “By then, there were a thousand people there. No one had called us. The company didn’t call us. We all heard by word of mouth.” She was herded into a training center at Upper Big Branch’s main entrance. “All I knew was that he was supposed to have gotten out of the mine at three P.M.”
Word came fairly quickly, but the way Massey announced it seemed heartless. According to Patty Quarles, Massey officials reassured families that their loved ones were safe. “One official told me that Gary Wayne was safe,” she says. Then they announced, “‘If I call out your name, go over to Whitesville Fire Department and identify the body.’ That’s how cold it was.”
Steve Harrah, Terry Ellison’s brother, was one of seven miners found dead on a mantrip that was 1,500 feet from the mine mouth—the first of the dead to be identified. Two other miners in the group survived. The blast had gone off four miles from Harrah, but despite the distance, it was enough to kill him and six others. Ellison says her brother was not dismembered by the powerful blast but suffocated when it sucked the oxygen out of the shaft through which he was leaving. Ellison was told that family members would have to identify the body. If that weren’t a blow enough, they were then sent on a wild-goose chase. “We went to the fire department, but he wasn’t there. Then we went to the elementary school, but he wasn’t there. Finally a police officer told us they had already taken him to the medical examiner’s office in Charleston.”
Another family that didn’t have to wait long to know the fate of their loved one were relatives of Benny R. Willingham of Corinne, West Virginia. Sixty-one-year-old Willingham had been a Vietnam War veteran of the air force and had been a miner for more than thirty years, including seventeen years with Massey. A church deacon, Willingham enjoyed playing with his grandchildren and lifting weights. He had intended to retire five weeks after he went to work at UBB on April 5 and had reserved a room on a cruise ship with his wife, Edith Mae, to explore Caribbean islands that May. He was on the mantrip with the group that Timothy Blake had tried to rescue. Reached at her home in the tiny town of Corinne eighteen months later, Edith Mae Willingham was too upset to talk about her husband’s death.
For other families, however, the ordeal of not knowing was just beginning. In Tommy Davis’s home village of Dawes, tucked beside the West Virginia Turnpike that climbs high above what had been a classic coal-company town, his eighteen-year-old son, Jeff, was picking up a little brother at a school bus stop. He went back home and fell asleep until the phone rang at 5 P.M. and his mother told him that there had been a mine explosion.
The family drove over the mountain to UBB, a trip that takes about thirty or forty-five minutes. They arrived about 7 P.M. Massey put them in a building and had drinks and food for them. “We stayed up all night and at seven A.M. Tuesday, Governor Manchin brought the whole family into a room and informed us of the deaths.” Manchin described telling the Davis family about Timmy, Cory, and Josh as the “most excruciating moment.” He had known the extended family personally. Tommy had just one question, Manchin recalled. “‘Were they all together?’ I said, yes, they were.”
Two days after the blast, fourteen bodies had been recovered and identified, but eleven others were found burned and mutilated beyond recognition. Another four miners were unaccounted for. Hopes rose that they might have made it to one of two airtight underground rescue chambers stocked with enough air, water, and food to last four days. Survival in those harrowing conditions was possible. In 2006, a blast at the Sago Mine, owned by International Coal Group near Buckhannon, West Virginia, killed twelve miners—but one miner, Randal McCloy Jr., was found alive after being trapped for more than forty hours despite high carbon monoxide levels.
UBB rescuers reached one of two chambers and found it empty. Unsafe levels of methane gas and carbon monoxide prevented them from going farther. On the surface, bulldozers began ripping out an access road on a steep mountain so three shafts could be drilled one thousand feet down to insert nitrogen and release enough toxic gas to let the rescue teams proceed. Families kept vigil at a Baptist church in Whitesville and at a training building at the UBB mine. State troopers in forest green uniforms helped with car rides, beverages, and food. Jim and Larry Chapman, whose brother Kenneth was one of the victims and was unaccounted for for days, say they weren’t sure what to think. “The firm didn’t find him but they wouldn’t tell us. I knew he was dead,” Jim said. His brother Larry added, “It looked like the top of that mountain was going to blow.” Still, families kept vigil. One retired miner, attached to an oxygen tank because he suffered from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, from breathing coal dust, sat patiently in the front seat of a car waiting for word of his grandson trapped below. He was praying.
* * *
Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, the blast would spell the end of the tumultuous eighteen-year reign of Don Blankenship as the head of Massey Energy. Blankenship, Gillenwater, corporate counsel Shane Harvey, and other Massey executives huddled to prepare for the inevitable barrage of bad press, shareholder lawsuits, legal challenges by dead miners’ families, and massive reviews by state and federal mine-safety regulators as well as a criminal probe by the U.S. Justice Department’s office in Charleston.
Under Blankenship, Massey had mastered a tactic of rebuffing almost every challenge. If MSHA issued a violation or closed a mine, Massey’s lawyers were quick to sue or file regulatory appeals to blunt as many moves against the company as possible. If the Environmental Protection Agency went after one of the firm’s mountaintop-removal surface mines, lawyers stood at the ready with lawsuits. The tactic was popular with political conservatives who especially admired the way Blankenship, a major donor to the Republican Party, pushed back against what they saw as a dangerous, oversized government with unneeded, profit-draining regulations, as well as against destructive, wrongheaded environmentalists.
During the five days when the fate of the missing four miners was unclear, Blankenship could be seen walking around the Upper Big Branch buildings. He issued public statements to the media and to families but kept to himself. He later told a U.S. Senate panel on May 20, 2010, that he “looked into the eyes” of family members of dead miners and said, “I don’t want to do that again.” He also said, “Let me state for the record: Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have, and never will. Period.” Robert Byrd, who was a member of the panel at the time, responded by saying, “It is clear—I mean, clear as a noonday sun in a cloudless sky—a clear record of blatant disregard for the welfare and safety of Massey miners. Shame!”
As the chaos immediately after the blast settled, Massey officials plotted a defensive strategy that would keep investigators at bay by limiting access to employees and records. A number of miners scheduled for interviews didn’t show up at first. Typically, manuscripts of their testimony would be made public, but they were kept out of public view by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that was conducting a criminal probe.
Blankenship balked at appearing at investigations, although he did make it to the Senate panel on Capitol Hill where Robert Byrd berated him. In public statements, he tried to turn the tide against MSHA, claiming that the agency was embroiled in an “MSHA-gate” to cover up its mistakes and sloppiness, including its insistence on altering Massey’s ventilation plans at Upper Big Branch and helping set up the mine for disaster.
There were bigger issues for Blankenship, however. For years, his tough-guy CEO stance put him at odds with public opinion and the investment community, which was used to smooth, well-managed chief executives who were sleek enough to blunt criticism, even when their firms did very bad things. Yet Massey’s board of directors continued to back him even if it quietly asked him from time to time to tone down his in-your-face hillbilly posture.
As soon as the situation started to settle at UBB, questions were raised about whether this was the last straw for Blankenship. Plans were drawn up to stash enough cash to cover the UBB disaster. The company put the cost at $129 million. Blankenship was quizzed by industry analysts at conference calls if the number might be larger, perhaps $150 million to $200 million. They had good reason to do so. In 2008, Massey agreed to pay $2.5 million in a criminal fine and $1.7 million in civil penalties for a fire at its Aracoma Coal subsidiary that killed two miners in 2006. The firm had also paid $20 million, then the largest fine ever, for pollution issues related to a surface mine in Kentucky in 1999, when an abandoned mine shaft under a pond holding mine waste split open and drained the waste into the watershed.
Immediately after the explosion, Massey’s stock tanked from the mid forty-dollars-a-share level to the mid to low thirty-dollars-a-share range, setting it up for a takeover. Its reserves of metallurgical coal as well as some of the top-rated steam coal for electric utilities made it a prize to covet. Also, the year before, Massey had announced the $960 million purchase of Cumberland Resources, also of Abingdon, a purchase that at the time doubled Massey’s sales of metallurgical coal. Alpha Natural Resources, which is based in Bristol, Virginia, and had ample reserves in Central Appalachia plus easy-to-mine, low-sulfur coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, had already made a run at it. As stock prices fluctuated, the coal industry was in the midst of a round of restructuring, and Massey was in the crosshairs of competing firms. And as expected, Alpha Natural Resources was preparing another run at Massey. Other interested parties included ArcelorMittal, a big Luxembourg-based steelmaker that got its start in India, as well as U.S. coal giant Peabody.
Blankenship was dead set against a takeover since it would cost him his job. The stakes were high. He had to manage the aftermath of the worst coal mining disaster in forty years in the United States and convince his directors to hang tough against a takeover.
* * *
Back at UBB, several heartbreaking days passed. Four miners remained unaccounted for. Families of miners whose bodies had been recovered and identified were busy with funerals. Finally, at 12:30 A.M. on Saturday, April 10, Manchin brought the media, which by now included representatives of outlets from around the world, to the Marsh Fork Elementary School and announced: “We did not receive the miracle we prayed for.”
The announcement was especially bitter because a federal law passed after the 2006 disaster at the Sago Mine killed twelve miners required faster response times to mining accidents. In that incident, the media prematurely released news that the twelve men had been found safe and then had to correct themselves. At UBB, MSHA started a massive probe, but it was weeks before the toxic gases had cleared enough for them to have complete access to the mine. Towns such as Whitesville returned to their sleepy selves as a handful of families talked to their lawyers about suing Massey. Eventually, twenty-nine wrongful death lawsuits would be filed by families of the victims, along with a host of shareholders’ lawsuits from institutional investors such as the Macomb County Employees Retirement System.
Massey officials got to work figuring payments to the families. For a time, Massey offered each family $3 million, but the offer expired when it was taken over by Alpha Natural Resources. To its credit, the company kept paying the salaries of surviving miners even if they didn’t report to work. That was the case for Tommy Davis, who stayed out of work for more than ten months but kept getting a paycheck from Massey. His house and yard are made over as a memorial to his lost relatives. A Ford F-150 pickup truck in the driveway has a big decal on its rear cab window commemorating his son, Cory. The front door of his home has the following inscription:
In loving memory
My best friend
Inside the living room there is a stack of taupe-colored Massey Energy work shirts. The family keeps them on hand to fly from their flagpole in the front yard, just under the U.S. flag, as a tribute to Cory. Tommy says he faults Massey for not telling the truth faster just after the blast, but “what’s done is done.” Eventually, he decided to go back to work at another Massey deep mine, but first he was going on a road trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, on his Harley-Davidson: “I need to face down my fears and deal with my demons. Get my mind right.”
Copyright © 2012 by Galuszka Associates, LLC