Six years and a day after Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine exploded, killing 29 men, Don Blankenship stood in federal court and tried to express his sorrow to the miners’ families.
“The lost coal miners were great coal miners,” Blankenship, the former Massey CEO and a towering figure in coal country, told the court.
For the families, many of whom sat through Blankenship’s entire two-month trial, it wasn’t enough. Not nearly.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave Blankenship the maximum allowable sentence for his actions leading up to the explosion — one year in prison, one year of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
For that, the families are thankful.
But the apology, and the relative lightness of the maximum allowable sentence — a year in prison for willfully conspiring to violate mine safety standards — didn’t sit well.
As Blankenship left the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, several family members of UBB victims, emotions still raw six years later, didn’t hold back. Decorum had reigned in the courtroom, but no longer.
Tommy Davis, who lost his brother, son and nephew at UBB, reached above the scrum of attorneys and news media surrounding Blankenship to point his finger at the man he blamed.
“You don’t have a heart; you don’t miss your kids like we miss ours,” Davis, who was working in a different section of UBB that day, shouted at Blankenship. “I hold a picture, I hold a tombstone; you hold nothing.”
Afterward, shaking with emotion, his voice breaking, he said Blankenship showed no remorse, and his apology in the courtroom didn’t help.
“It didn’t mean nothing, and it still won’t mean nothing,” Davis, whose son Cory, 20, was the youngest miner killed at UBB. “He never come to me in six years, never come to me, never come to my mom, my dad who’re gone now. They grieved themselves to death. He never come to apologize to us. He never said nothing.”
Annette Workman, who lost her husband, Ricky, in the mine, stood quietly outside the courthouse with her family after the sentencing. When Blankenship walked out of the building, she also approached, letting her feelings be known.
“Did you ever go down in that mine?” she shouted at the former CEO.
She said it was hard to remember what happened during the court proceedings.
“I feel like it was a blur,” she said, “like I didn’t know what was going on.”
She pointed at her daughter, Monica White, who was holding Workman’s granddaughter, Makenzie.
“That’s one he never got to see,” Workman said.
“I think he should have gotten a little bit more time,” White said, tears filling her eyes.
Gary Quarles, who lost his son, Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, at Upper Big Branch, didn’t care for the apology either.
“It really tore me and my wife both up,” Quarles said. “It’s a little too late to apologize now, you know? I don’t know why he did that.”
Blankenship was not charged with or convicted of causing the explosion at UBB, but for Clay Mullins, who lost his brother, Rex, it was a distinction without a difference.
He noted that 365 days in prison amounted to about 12-and-a-half days for each dead miner.
“This man made millions of dollars at the expense of our loved ones,” he said. “Rex Mullins’ family wants their 12-and-a-half days paid in full.”
Blankenship’s apology didn’t sway Mullins. Neither did the fact that Blankenship reasserted in court, “I am not guilty of a crime.”
“He’s not sorry. He’s sorry he got caught,” Mullins said. “He has been nothing but arrogant, gives the families dirty stares, dirty looks. That’s Don Blankenship’s game that he is playing in front of the judge.”
Because Blankenship’s conviction was not directly connected to the explosion, Berger did not allow any family members to speak in the courtroom before she sentenced Blankenship. She also cut Blankenship off when he began to talk about the explosion.
Betty Harrah, who lost her brother, Steve, wanted to speak but was happy that Blankenship would be going to prison.
“If I could just be there when the damn door closes behind him,” she said.
“He had the chance to speak, so why couldn’t I?” Harrah asked. “I want them to know that I lost my everything. My family lost everything.”
Dr. Judy Jones Peterson lost her brother, Edward Dean Jones, in the explosion. She had been planning to speak, as well, but was just as happy not to. Standing outside the courthouse with her surviving brother, sister and mother, Jones Peterson said Judge Berger spoke for the families.
In issuing her sentence, Berger told Blankenship that, as CEO, he was “ultimately responsible” for the working conditions of the mine.
“Each day and each shift that miners don their hats and boots and proudly go underground,” Berger said, “generally without any trepidation to make a living for themselves and for their families, they necessarily rely on owners and operators and administrators of these mines to provide a safe workplace.”
Standing next to a framed picture of her dead brother, it was just what Jones Peterson wanted to hear.
“She did such a great job of saying exactly what needed to be heard today; nobody else needs to say anything,” Jones Peterson said. “It wouldn’t have mattered what happened in this courtroom today. It wouldn’t have been enough penalty for what he really deserved, but we have to be happy with what actually occurred and, more than that, happy with what she said.”
Blankenship’s apology, she said, was “too little, too late.”
“He should have said that long ago and far away.”