CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Interviews with rescuers who helped find and pull bodies from West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine last year suggest some of them question who was in charge during the chaotic early hours after the explosion — Massey Energy Co. or the federal government.
So do relatives of at least two of the 29 men who died in the nation's worst coal mining disaster since 1970.
The interviews show ill-equipped Massey executives Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead charged deep into the mine just after the blast. So did two fully equipped and trained Massey mine rescue teams. And at least early on, even government mine rescue teams assumed Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins was directing the search for victims.
Blanchard and Whitehead stayed inside the mine despite concerns raised by two federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials who testified they felt the executives were creating confusion underground by ignoring rescue protocols and creating footprints in the dust that could throw off the searchers.
That behavior is "the way Massey has been all along — above the law," said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died in the April 5, 2010, explosion. "Blanchard and Whitehead, they just thought they didn't have to answer to nobody, that they could go and do what they wanted to do."
Quarles said Wednesday he's read only seven transcripts so far, but they're enough to raise questions about why MSHA didn't take over and order the executives out.
"They were acting on their own," he said, "and didn't care what MSHA and the state had to say."
Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the blast, called the company's actions "typical Massey."
"My impression is that Massey took control of everything down there that night," he said. "It looked to me like they just pushed MSHA to the side and did what they wanted to do. They didn't want to have backup rescue teams or anything."
Officials from Massey and MSHA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
It is unclear whether Blanchard, president of the mining subsidiary that managed Upper Big Branch, and Whitehead, then director of underground performance, have talked with investigators. Massey has said they were merely trying to save the lives of their men.
But in some of thousands of pages of documents released this week, it's clear the Massey executives weren't the only ones who knowingly broke the established rules of mine rescue, charging into the hellish blast scene without permission, sufficient equipment or backup in what turned out to be a vain attempt to save others.
Other rescue team members defend their actions as the natural impulse of a coal miner to help a fallen comrade.
"If you had people in there, and it was your mine and your friends or your workers, you'd probably go in, too, as far as you could go reasonably without endangering yourself," MSHA rescuer Virgil Brown told investigators.
But MSHA's Jerry Cook, who was barred from helping with the search after an initial clash with Massey executives, told investigators their presence only made things worse.
"You know, it's bad enough to try to find 29 people, you don't need to have 40 more to look for," he said, adding that Blanchard and Whitehead could have ended up doing something to change the environment underground.
"They could've done anything in that mine that they wanted to," he said. "We just had a major explosion. ... They could've killed every one of us."
The interviews — conducted from May 2010 through March 2011 — represent just a fraction of the 263 people questioned by state, federal and independent investigators. MSHA has said it will release additional transcripts in consultation with federal prosecutors, who are simultaneously pursuing a criminal investigation.
Dominating the interviews, some of which run more than 120 pages, are technical questions that show investigators aggressively pursuing MSHA's theory that Massey allowed highly explosive coal dust to build up and fuel the blast. Massey denies that dust played a role. It claims a sudden rush of methane or natural gas overwhelmed all safety systems.
But sprinkled throughout the transcripts, too, are comments that provide the first detailed glimpse of the horrific conditions searchers found. Boots blown off their owners' feet. Fluorescent stripes melted off blue work clothes. A far-flung hardhat, its brim ripped off. Melted cables and dripping oil on damaged electrical boxes.
And bodies, some so blackened with soot they were unrecognizable even to the rescuers who had called them friends. Bodies mutilated, either by sheer force of the blast or by flying debris. Bodies with air packs, or self-contained self-rescuers, the owners never had time to use.
Gene White, now West Virginia's deputy mine safety chief, testified about retreating to grab fabric to cover four victims found along his team's path.
"The teams were going to have travel right by them. We didn't want everybody exposed to that. So we covered those four individuals," he said. "There was no reason to expose anybody to that, and it is more respectful to the victims."
The debris and damage were nearly incomprehensible, the metal plates under the roof bolts bent in so many directions that rescuers couldn't determine which direction the explosion traveled. In some spots, debris was so deep that teams had to crawl over piles, unable to see the mine floor.
"I saw airlock doors. They were rolled up in a ball, you know, the size of a beach ball," said MSHA rescuer David Leverknight. "I mean they were just ... they were destroyed. There was nothing."
State rescuer John Kinder described a metal box that had been sheared asunder, with part of it driven into the roof.
Mullins says the transcripts reveal the damage was far more severe than the victims' families were initially told.
"I feel like I was lied to by Massey and MSHA and the state," he said.
They also reveal his brother was found just hours after the explosion, even though his family wasn't informed until days later.
"They said they couldn't positively identify them," Mullins said, but it was Blanchard and Whitehead who found his brother. "I think it should've been told that night. They knew by the devastation ... that no one could have survived."
In an emotional interview that he began with a prayer, Massey mine rescue team member Mark Bolen described how six-man teams carried the bodies out relay-style, gently handing the baskets over to the next team.
Bolen worked at the last stop; he helped load the victims onto a shuttle car, cover them with American flags, then drive them to the surface.
It was "nothing short of a miracle to have 140 men underground working together with no motivation but love," he said, "and it was a beautiful thing."
Vicki Smith reported from Morgantown.
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