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One year ago tonight, rescuers found the remains of four coal miners in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The bodies of 25 others had been found earlier that week. All were killed by a massive explosion that has yet to be fully explained. NPR's Howard Berkes has spent much of the last year focused on this disaster - reports on some of the big questions that remain.

HOWARD BERKES: It's still hard to fathom: 29 dead in a coal mine explosion in 2010. Here's Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Administrator, Mine Safety and Health Administration): I've been in MSHA for 31 years, and I've never seen 29 fatalities. This takes us back to the '60s or '70s, this explosion.

BERKES: It actually goes back to 1907, says Mark Moreland, whose law firm represents the interests of coal miners in the Upper Big Branch investigation, and victims' families suing Massey Energy.

Mr. MARK MORELAND (Attorney): If you look at what happened in this mine and what happened at Monongah, the difference is a period of 100 years and the fact that we don't use mules in coal mining anymore. The extent of coal dust here is like it was a hundred years ago.

BERKES: Coal dust is highly explosive, and turns small ignitions of methane gas into massive firestorms. And that's what happened at Upper Big Branch, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Now, vigorous airflow and sprayed water normally suppress such ignitions, says Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief conducting an independent investigation at Upper Big Branch.

Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Former Federal Mine Safety Chief): If the systems were put in place, you would have limited the explosion to a single area, and you would have limited its spread. The fact that it spread through the mine says to you that the systems didn't work.

BERKES: Massey Energy has a different explanation that does not include failed safety systems or coal dust. The company calls this a natural disaster fueled by an unexpected infusion of natural gas. Here's how McAteer responds.

Mr. MCATEER: It's not our conclusion that it was a natural disaster - in my understanding of that term - but was a disaster which was preventable, and which had human causes.

BERKES: McAteer says he'll elaborate in his final report, which could be out in a matter of weeks. He had the same response to another lingering question: Did Massey Energy put production over safety? Yes, says Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother Dean was a Massey foreman when he died at Upper Big Branch

Ms. JUDY JONES PETERSEN: There was an incidence in which my brother had his section shut down by one of the federal MSHA people. And as soon as that federal investigator left, there was a call to my brother, saying: Put it in the coal, Deano; get the production going again.

BERKES: Massey Energy production documents obtained by NPR closely track every foot of coal mined, and every minute of time lost, every hour of every shift -every day. And every two hours, production reports went to former CEO Don Blankenship, according to his own deposition in 2008.

Blankenship wrote mine superintendents three years earlier that they need to ignore anything other than running coal. He then wrote another memo saying safety is first, but some say the expectations were clear.

Mr. RICKY LEE CAMPBELL: It makes you want to go nonstop, you know what I mean? You can't slow down. It's like you're always rushing things.

BERKES: Ricky Lee Campbell hauled coal in buggies in two Massey mines, including Upper Big Branch. He has a whistleblower case pending against the company. The pressure to produce was constant, Campbell says, and there were days every second of work was timed by a guy with a stopwatch. Workers didn't have time to hang special ventilation curtains, which help sweep away explosive methane gas and coal dust.

Mr. CAMPBELL: 'Cause that takes up that one minute. That's another minute of you getting two buggies. So you can hang that curtain, or get two extra loads or three extra loads. They want them loads.

BERKES: We asked former CEO Don Blankenship about this last fall, before he suddenly retired.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (Former CEO, Massey Energy): I don't think that timing your productive processes means that you're putting pressure on people to be unsafe 'cause actually, you're also timing how long it's taking them to do it safely. And that observation by that time-study guy, if you will, will include comments about things that he sees that are unsafe.

BERKES: Blankenship also rejected the notion that his laser focus on productivity subverted attention to safety.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: I'm as involved in the level of detail that you described on productivity, also in safety.

BERKES: But in the months before the explosion, federal mine inspectors forced more safety shutdowns at Upper Big Branch than at any other mine in the country. Yet even the regulators missed the multiple systems failures McAteer describes.

Here's Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main.

Assistant Secretary JOE MAIN (Department of Labor): There's fundamental problems that we've got in this industry that are more serious than all of us have been taking them.

BERKES: Main launched a federal crackdown on problem mines, which raises this question: What's the likelihood of another major disaster somewhere else?

Mr. STRICKLIN: On April 4th of last year, I'd say there's probably very little chance of something occurring. And after April 5th, it humbled me a lot.

BERKES: Kevin Stricklin, of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Mr. STRICKLIN: I'd like to think that we won't have another Upper Big Branch. But if the company's not on their guard, the miners aren't on their guard and MSHA's not on their guard, a disaster is always a possibility if you don't take care of business every minute of every day.

BERKES: The federal mine safety agency says its preliminary report on the cause of the Upper Big Branch disaster will be ready at the end of June.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Charleston, West Virginia.

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