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An NPR News investigation has revealed new concerns about what happened in the hours after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, where 29 mine workers died in April.
Two officials from mine owner Massey Energy were underground, unsupervised, for four hours after the blast. The company says they were trying to rescue people. But some investigators and federal regulators want to know whether evidence was compromised.
NPR's Howard Berkes explains.
HOWARD BERKES: It was just after 3 in the afternoon on April 5th. Inside the Upper Big Branch mine, 29 lives were gone - or fading fast. If the explosive force and fire didn't take them, the gases would. Miners and mine officials outside rushed in to find survivors and they didnt get far, about three-quarters of a mile, before finding eight men in a shuttle car. Only one was alive. They brought the severely injured survivor and the bodies out, but two company executives went deeper into the mine.
This is familiar behavior to Ed Clair, who spent 22 years as the chief lawyer at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Mr. ED CLAIR (Chief Lawyer, Mine Safety and Health Administration): The impulse is to get into the mine and see if you can bring people out alive. My own view is that it was irresponsible for them to be there with the best of intentions. They clearly took extreme risk with their own lives and with the lives of rescuers.
BERKES: Rescuers have been killed trying to save people who rushed in to help. In this case, the two executives spent four hours on their own, walking nine miles, according to Massey Energy. They didn't have the sophisticated breathing apparatus mine rescuers wear - using, instead, simpler self-rescue devices stashed underground.
Chris Blanchard is the president of the subsidiary that operates the mine. Jason Whitehead was the director of underground improvement, but is now a Massey vice president. Again, Ed Clair, the former mine safety solicitor.
Mr. CLAIR: I would've expected corporate officials at this high level to know better than to stay in the mine for that long period of time. They would've known that the government would want them out of the mine so that an organized, methodical rescue effort could commence.
BERKES: In fact, the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a so-called K-order at 5:20 that night, closing the mine to all but official rescuers and authorized activity. In the command center on the surface, Kevin Strickland, the agency's coal mine chief, was alarmed.
Mr. KEVIN STRICKLAND (Coal Mine Chief, Mine Safety and Health Administration): MSHA has to give approval of people to go into areas that are under the K-order. And in this case, the K-order was in place for the entire mine. So they shouldn't have been underground. But I was emphatic that I wanted those two guys out of there. And at the time, it was more for their safety than what it was that I thought anything was being tampered with.
BERKES: Tampering with evidence is a concern because Blanchard and Whitehead had been near the longwall mining machine that is believed to be one of three likely sources of the blast. Massey insists they were on a heroic rescue mission in an area where eight bodies were found. But this is also a company with a legacy of safety violations, citations and fines.
And there was that incident in February in the mine, reported by NPR, in which safety equipment on a mining machine was disabled. Possible tampering with equipment is already one subject of disaster and criminal investigations.
Mr. STRICKLAND: There's an issue - whether it occurred or not - there's a question that's going to come up of whether there was any tampering that took place.
BERKES: Should this be investigated by the MSHA special investigators and/or the FBI?
Mr. STRICKLAND: Yes.
BERKES: Answering that question the same way is Davitt McAteer, a veteran of mine disaster investigations, a former federal mine safety chief, and the leader of an independent, Upper Big Branch investigative team assembled by West Virginia's governor.
Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Mine Disaster Investigator): As a matter of practice and a matter of custom, you don't want somebody in there who's got an interest in this outcome of the investigation, to have unfettered access to the materials, including information that's underground.
BERKES: Massey Energy says in a statement there was no effort whatsoever to tamper with any evidence. The only goal, the company says, was to rescue fellow miners. Still, some now doubt the integrity of the evidence underground. Mark Moreland represents the interests of coal miners in the disaster investigation.
Mr. MARK MORELAND (Attorney): This cast a pall on all the evidence, and this certainly has to be clarified and cleared up completely before the evidence could in any way be interpreted as relieving Massey of fault.
BERKES: Moreland also represents two families suing Massey Energy for wrongful death.
Kevin Strickland, of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, says he's confident investigators can detect any tampering.
Mr. STRICKLAND: We will be able, if we need to, get to the point of fingerprinting or DNA testing to make this determination. We're not above that. I mean, we'll do whatever it takes to make sure that when we say conclusively what occurred, did occur. And I'm not saying that Blanchard or Whitehead did anything. But if they did, we'll be able to make that determination.
BERKES: Neither Massey executives Chris Blanchard nor Jason Whitehead were available to speak with us, the company said, but they're scheduled for questioning by investigators later this month.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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