Mine Disaster Answers Still Months Away Federal mine safety officials urged caution in the wake of conflicting reports about the investigation of the April coal mine disaster in West Virginia that left 29 mineworkers dead. Mine owner Massey Energy has tried to present its own theory about the tragedy.
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Mine Disaster Answers Still Months Away

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Mine Disaster Answers Still Months Away

Mine Disaster Answers Still Months Away

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It's been four months since that deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia, but federal mine safety officials say they're still months away from pinpointing a cause. They briefed relatives of the 29 victims last night, and then reporters this morning.

NPR's Howard Berkes has this story from Beckley, West Virginia.

HOWARD BERKES: The briefing for the families last night was private, so the only reporter there was relegated to the parking lot. And many of the pickups, SUVs and sedans had something in common: white decals with a cross, a pick and a shovel, a miner crawling on hands and knees with a headlamp showing the way, and these words: In memory of our son; in memory of my brother; in memory of my father.

There were 15 different vehicles with eight different names, including Rex Mullins. His sister Sherry told me this morning by phone about the briefing with federal officials last night.

Ms. SHERRY MULLINS SCURLOCK: Everyone leaves these meetings frustrated. You're sitting in these meetings, and your insides are just going crazy because you want to know what happened but still, there's no answer - definitive answer about what happened.

BERKES: Part of the frustration is this: The weeks between the briefings are filled with leaks from the investigation, and a concerted effort by mine owner Massey Energy to present its own theory about the tragedy. Massey briefed selected family members last week, and said the blast may have been caused not by neglect nor production pressure, but by a natural event: a massive influx of methane through a giant crack in the mine's floor.

Federal mine safety chief Joe Main said in the teleconference today he's not aware of such a crack.

Mr. JOE MAIN (Assistant Secretary, Mine Safety and Health Administration): I have seen nothing to represent a crack that large, nor have I talked to anybody that has.

BERKES: Massey has also claimed that the methane monitors recovered from the mine show no signs of electronic disabling. And testing of the devices indicates Massey is right, according to West Virginia's lead investigator and another witness to the tests.

But federal coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin told the families and the reporters other kinds of tampering may have occurred.

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Administrator, Mine Safety and Health Administration): Right now, we can't confirm that it hasn't been tampered with, and that's the position that we've taken. We have a lot more testing that we need to do. We're not accusing anyone of anything, but we basically want to rule everything out before we can say that they weren't tampered with.

BERKES: Stricklin and Main were repeatedly asked by reporters why they give Massey Energy the room to speculate, to fill the information void between briefings.

Main first answered this way.

Mr. MAIN: I cannot be responsible for what Massey decides to do to release this information.

BERKES: But when pressed further about the dearth of information from the federal mine safety agency, Main added this.

Mr. MAIN: It's a little bit difficult to dribble out information that you really don't know what it means yet - that, you know, may cause more confusion than clarity here. And what we're trying to do is go through this in a process to try to pull this information together, to show what it means.

BERKES: And again today, Massey Energy added to the dribble. The company released photos of cracks in the mine floor, said a methane outburst was still a possibility, and declared there was no tampering with the methane monitors inspected so far.

Sherry Mullins Scurlock says she's skeptical of what Massey says, but scours the news and the Internet and the meetings for...

Ms. SCURLOCK: Any drop of information that we can get 'cause we want to know exactly what happened to Rex.

BERKES: The family knows where miner Rex Mullins died, and they have some sense of how. But why is still a mystery.

Federal mine safety officials say the search for information will soon include subpoenas for interviews with mine managers and executives from Massey Energy.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.

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