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Family members of 29 miners who died in an explosion last month gave a chilling account today of life underground before the blast. Speaking together for the first time at a public hearing, they described mine managers who took dangerous shortcuts and then threatened to fire workers who complained about them.

The mine's owner, Massey Energy, continues to insist it puts safety above all else.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has the story.

FRANK LANGFITT: Stanley Stewart was inside the Upper Big Branch Mine when it blew April 5th. Stewart, who ran a coal cutting machine, was stunned by the explosion, but not surprised. Speaking before a House committee today, he said the mine had serious safety problems; so serious, he said, he warned his wife he might die.

Mr. STANLEY STEWART (Miner, Upper Big Branch Mine): In fact, last July, because I was so scared and mad, I told my wife, Mindy, if anything happens to me for her to get a lawyer and sue them. I told her, I said: This place is a ticking time bomb.

LANGFITT: Stewart said managers at the Upper Big Branch Mine never seemed able to get enough fresh air to where workers were cutting coal. Air dilutes methane gas and disperses potentially explosive coal dust. A proper airflow system is crucial to preventing blasts.

Mr. STEWART: And management, I don't know, I would refer to them as the village idiots. They don't know how to ventilate a coal mine.

LANGFITT: Stewart worked at Upper Big Branch for 15 years. He said complaining about safety could cost you your job.

Mr. STEWART: We knew that we'd be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us, maybe not that day or that week, but somewhere down the line we'd disappear.

LANGFITT: Stewart was not the only person who said Massey threatened to fire workers over safety matters. Alice Peters is the mother-in-law of Dean Jones, a foreman who died in the accident. Peters said her son-in-law had also complained to the company about airflow in the mine.

Ms. ALICE PETERS: He often told me and his wife that he was afraid to go to work because the condition at the mine were so bad. He also told me, at least seven times, they told him if he shut down the productions because of ventilation problems, he would lose his job.

LANGFITT: Massey did not testify at today's hearing, which was held in Beckley, West Virginia. But it released the following statement: We appreciate the continuing efforts by Congress and federal and state agencies to determine the specific cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion. Our focus remains on providing for the families affected by this tragic accident and cooperating with the state and federal agencies to determine its cause.

Company CEO Don Blankenship has expressed skepticism that workers were ever threatened with their jobs. He says Massey has an anonymous tip line for safety problems. And on Capitol Hill last week, Blankenship said this:

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): Let me state for the record: Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have and we never will, period.

LANGFITT: But Massey miner Gary Quarles, who lost his son in the blast, says the company was in such a rush to make money, it cut corners on safety and would only fix problems when inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration or MSHA showed up.

Mr. GARY QUARLES: When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mines property, the code word goes out: We've got a man on the property. When the word goes out, all effort is made to correct any violations or direct the inspectors from violations.

LANGFITT: George Miller, a California Democrat, oversaw the hearing. Miller said alerting miners to fix violations as inspectors approach runs counter to the intent of the law.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Education and Labor Committee): Somehow, that just on its face has to be an obstruction of justice. I mean, you're interfering with this really lifesaving activity that goes on on a regular basis.

LANGFITT: Blankenship says Massey won't tolerate employees gaming the inspection system. And when some were caught recently doing so, he fired them.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.

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