The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

April 3, 2014

Families remember mine disaster victims

Watching film opens wounds

CHARLESTON — Four years after losing friends and relatives in a West Virginia mine disaster, 11 people preferred to watch a film together that they knew would reopen those wounds.

The film, “Upper Big Branch - Never Again,” by former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship theorized that his old company wasn’t at fault for the deadly explosion, despite four investigations that concluded otherwise. The four-year anniversary of the explosion that killed 29 miners is Saturday, and Blankenship released the documentary online Monday.

Those who watched Tuesday were enraged, sometimes laughed in disbelief and had to turn their heads.

Tommy Davis lost a son, a nephew and a brother in the blast. A former Upper Big Branch miner himself, Davis got off his shift early before the explosion and escaped with another nephew.

The documentary ends by flipping through faces of victims, many of whom Davis saw that day.

“That’s what got me,” said Davis, a 46-year-old from Cabin Creek. “I helped unload those dead men. And there’s particular ones that stick in my head really, really hard every day.”

A handful of family and friends met Wednesday in front of Charleston’s federal courthouse to commemorate their lost loved ones. They said they also wanted justice.

They renewed calls to have Blankenship and other executives prosecuted, carrying “Wanted” signs with his mug shot.

Blankenship’s attorney has said his client has done nothing wrong. Massey Energy owned the mine at the time of the disaster but it has since been sold.

Investigations found the blast was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by accumulations of methane gas and coal dust, and allowed to spread because of clogged and broken water sprayers.

The documentary argues that natural gas caused the explosion.

“Don Blankenship is concerned that improvements in mine safety will not be made as long as the geological characteristics of mines and mine disasters are not fully investigated,” said James Lea of Adroit Films, which produced the documentary.

Victims’ family members called it more blame-shifting.

“It’s pouring salt on an open wound,” said Amber Herald, an Ohio resident whose friend Josh Napper died in the mine. “Every day, (Blankenship) has a lie to tell. But to actually put it in a film and sit and lie, knowing what he’s done, I don’t know how he does it.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin appeared in the documentary, but said he was incensed to learn Blankenship was behind it. The Democratic senator has demanded his interviews be stripped out. He called the film propaganda and said it should be taken off the Internet.

At least three other people in the documentary said they thought they were being interviewed about mine safety, and knew nothing about Blankenship’s involvement.

Lea, of Adroit Films, said no one was deceived.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the mine disaster continues. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Wednesday that “resolve to finish it has never been stronger.”

Last September, former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison for conspiring in an illegal advance-warning scheme. The charges grew out of a criminal investigation into the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster. White Buck was a Massey subsidiary.

Though Hughart never worked at Upper Big Branch, he is cooperating in an ongoing Department of Justice probe of the explosion. Two other men, former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover and former superintendent Gary May, are already behind bars for their actions at the now-sealed mine near Montcoal.

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