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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lawyer for the families of two miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster demanded Friday to be present when government investigators interview two Massey Energy Co. officials who spent four unsupervised hours underground immediately after the deadly April 5 explosion.
In a letter to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, attorney Mark Moreland said the disclosures about Massey officials Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead have "impugned the credibility of physical evidence" in the mine.
"These actions, now publicly known, will intensify public scrutiny of the investigation process and will certainly further enhance suspicions already voiced many times by miners and family members," wrote Moreland, who represents some miners at the Massey operation, in addition to two disaster victims' families.
Massey officials said in a statement that Blanchard and Whitehead did not tamper with any evidence, and were in the mine only to try to save any workers who survived the explosion.
"Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead risked their lives to save fellow coal miners, including one of the injured coal miners who survived the explosion with their assistance," Massey said. "These rescue efforts were their one and only objective. Period."
Massey issued its statement in response to inquiries from National Public Radio, which reported Thursday that federal and state regulators planned to investigate where Blanchard and Whitehead traveled and what they did while underground.
"As a matter of practice and as 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 and to the information that's underground," Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin's special investigator for the Upper Big Branch disaster, said in the NPR story.
Shane Harvey, Massey's corporate general counsel, blasted the NPR story as a "supermarket tabloid-style piece" in a comment posted Friday on The Charleston Gazette's "Coal Tattoo" blog.
MSHA officials had confirmed in early August that two then-unnamed Massey officials were ordered out of the Upper Big Branch Mine after being underground for an undetermined period of time between the time of the explosion and when federal officials took control of mine site access.
The NPR report, along with Massey's lengthy response and new documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail, provide more details and raise new questions about events at Upper Big Branch in the frantic hours following an explosion that became the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
In an April 15 report to President Obama, MSHA officials said that carbon monoxide monitors at Upper Big Branch indicated the explosion occurred at 3:02 p.m, but in reports phoned in to MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, Massey officials described the incident differently and provided a different time for when it occurred.
At 3:30 p.m., a Massey official phoned MSHA to report "a hazardous inundation of carbon monoxide gas" that occurred just three minutes earlier, at 3:27 p.m.
"The caller indicated there is 50 to 100 parts per million," according to internal MSHA documents. "There is an air reversal on the beltline at the Ellis Portal. The cause of the buildup of gas is unknown and the mine is being evacuated."
Nine minutes later, at 3:39 p.m., Massey phoned the state to report an "air reversal on the belt line," with no injuries and the mine being evacuated, according to state records.
In a statement issued by its public relations firm, Massey said, "the first indication of a problem was a reversal in air, which was felt by miners preparing to begin the next shift. This air reversal was reported to MSHA. It took several more minutes to determine that the air reversal was in fact caused by an explosion."
However, no one has explained yet what happened at Upper Big Branch in the 25 minutes between the carbon monoxide alarms described by MSHA and the air reversal reported by Massey. Also, neither state nor federal officials have cited Massey for violating a rule that requires serious mining accidents to be reported to authorities within 15 minutes.
Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, said his agency wanted to find out for sure what Massey knew about the incident and when, before deciding if a reporting citation was warranted. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said federal officials would issue any citations all at once when their investigation is completed.
In its statement to NPR, Massey said Blanchard and Whitehead managed to travel through smoke and carbon monoxide, using one-hour breathing devices intended only to aid with mine evacuations, for 12 to 14 miles underground in the four hours after the explosion. Blanchard is president of Massey's Performance Coal subsidiary. Whitehead was director of underground operations and has since been promoted to a post as a corporate vice president.
"They initially traveled up the headgate entries, but were turned around by high levels of carbon monoxide," Massey said in its statement. "They subsequently attempted to reach coal miners by traveling up the tailgate entries, but again encountered high levels of carbon monoxide and were unable to get to the tail of the longwall [where the shearer is located].
"They retreated and headed back to the headgate entries, where they were able to make it to the stageloader on the headgate side of the longwall. They were unable to locate any survivors. Subsequently, mine rescue teams arrived."
Massey's timeline would put Blanchard and Whitehead underground long after 5:20 p.m., when MSHA issued an order that required anyone doing anything underground to first receive written agency approval. Massey noted that MSHA hasn't cited any violations of that order, and said Blanchard and Whitehead were never ordered out of the mine.
During an Aug. 11 news conference, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said he personally ordered Blanchard and Whitehead out of the mine as soon as he learned they were underground.
Last week, in an e-mail interview with the Gazette-Mail, Stricklin said it was not clear yet how many other Massey employees were underground prior to MSHA taking control of the rescue operation.
"I truly don't know how many people were underground at the time of the explosion," Stricklin said. "I know there were a couple of mantrips inside of the mine going to their sections when the explosion occurred. Some of these people traveled further in to the point of where the mantrip exiting [Tailgate] 22 section was found.
"I know for sure that Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead went further [into the mine]," Stricklin said. "They later were at the fresh air base as the rescue teams advanced.
"I do not know the times, but the log and check in-check out log will certainly show their presence in the mine," Stricklin said. "I do not know what time they were asked to exit, but again, the log will show that."
MSHA has not yet responded to a June 3 Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the Upper Big Branch mine rescue log.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.