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 mineworkers died in April.
Two officials from mine owner Massey Energy were underground unsupervised for four hours after the blast. They traveled nine miles underground and reached the area of the longwall mining machine that is considered a possible source of the explosion. They remained underground even after the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a so-called (k) order closing the mine to all but official rescuers and authorized activity.
NPR learned about the underground travel of the officials from multiple sources familiar with the investigations of the Upper Big Branch tragedy. Massey Energy confirmed the details in response to questions posed by NPR.
The officials involved are Chris Blanchard, president of the Massey Energy subsidiary that manages the Upper Big Branch mine, and Jason Whitehead, who was director of underground performance at the time and is now a Massey vice president.
Neither is available for interviews, Massey says, but company Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey issued a statement asserting that Blanchard and Whitehead "risked their lives to save fellow coal miners. ... These rescue efforts were their one and only objective."
Blanchard and Whitehead were part of a group of Massey officials and miners who rushed into the mine immediately after the explosion on April 5. They found the first victims about three-quarters of a mile inside the mine entrance -- eight mineworkers in a "man trip," or shuttle car. Only one was alive. The group attended to the severely injured miner who was eventually led to safety.
Blanchard and Whitehead headed deeper into the mine. This is familiar behavior to Ed Clair, who spent 22 years as the chief lawyer at MSHA.
"The impulse is to get into the mine and see if you can bring people out alive," Clair says. "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."
Rescuers have been killed trying to save people who rushed into mines to help in the moments after a disaster. Hazards include smoke and toxic gases, impassable debris and rock that peels from roofs and walls.
Blanchard and Whitehead didn’t have the sophisticated breathing apparatus mine rescuers wear, using instead simpler self-rescue devices stashed underground. They were not certified mine rescuers that day nor members of any of the official mine rescue teams gathering at the mine, according to the rosters of those teams assembled by investigators.
"I would have expected corporate officials at this high level to know better than to stay in the mine for that long period of time," Clair adds. "They would have known that the government would want them out of the mine so that an organized, methodical rescue effort could commence."
"They shouldn't have been underground," insists Kevin Stricklin, chief of coal mine safety for the MSHA, citing the (k) order, which was issued about two hours after they entered the mine.
Stricklin was in the command center on the surface on April 5 and remembers hearing that the two Massey officials were underground without proper breathing apparatus.
"I was emphatic that I wanted those two guys out of there," Stricklin says. "And at the time, it was more for their safety than ... that I thought anything was being tampered with."
Tampering with evidence is a concern because Blanchard and Whitehead had been close to the longwall mining machine that is a major focus of the disaster investigation. Eight bodies were found in the area, and Harvey insists Blanchard and Whitehead were there as part of their heroic mission to find survivors.
But Massey Energy and Upper Big Branch have a legacy of safety violations, citations and fines. And NPR reported a February incident in which safety equipment was disabled on a mining machine at Upper Big Branch. Possible tampering with equipment is already one subject of existing disaster and criminal investigations. A federal grand jury in Charleston, W.Va., has questioned witnesses about the February incident.
Stricklin says it's not known whether Blanchard or Whitehead did anything wrong on the night of April 5, but he adds, "there's a question that's gonna come up of whether there was any tampering that took place."
When asked if MSHA special investigators and/or the FBI should investigate, Stricklin responded, "Yes."
The same question was answered the same way by Davitt McAteer, the lead Upper Big Branch investigator for an independent team assembled by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.
McAteer is a veteran of other mine disaster investigations, has written about mine disasters and served as the nation's mine safety chief in the Clinton administration. He's concerned that the Massey officials spent so much time and traveled so far 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," McAteer says.
Massey Energy General Counsel Harvey is unequivocal. "There was absolutely no effort whatsoever to tamper with evidence; the only goal was to rescue fellow miners," Harvey says.
In response to a follow-up question from NPR, Massey spokesman Micah Ragland says Blanchard and Whitehead discovered three bodies underground but were unable to identify them. Ragland says the pair notified "people in the command center immediately" but didn’t know who was notified or how the notification was made.
The presence of the two Massey officials underground that night has some now doubting the integrity of the evidence in the mine.
"This casts a pall on all the evidence," says Mark Moreland, an attorney who represents the interests of coal miners in the Upper Big Branch investigation. "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."
Moreland also represents the families of two Upper Big Branch victims. They are the only two families who have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Massey Energy so far.
MSHA's Stricklin says he's confident investigators will be able to detect any tampering if there was any.
"We will be able, if we need to, get to the point of fingerprinting or DNA testing to make this determination," Stricklin says. "I'm not saying that Blanchard or Whitehead did anything but if they did, we'll be able to make that determination."
Sources familiar with the investigation say Blanchard and Whitehead are scheduled for questioning by state and federal disaster investigators later this month.