Twenty-nine hard hats rest atop twenty-nine red wooden crosses. Twenty-nine photos line a metal beam of a coal tipple overhead.
Tommy Davis stares at the white flowers, handmade wreaths and stone markers adorning the space — a tribute to the 29 men who were killed in an explosion eight years ago, April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal.
“The memorial is nice,” he says, taking a drag from his cigarette. “But this is closer.”
Just a couple miles farther on Coal River Road in Whitesville, a 48-foot long black granite monument featuring life-size silhouettes of 29 coal miners. The back side of the monument lists the names of each of the fallen miners, along with a history of coal mining in West Virginia.
But here, just across from the coal mine itself, is where Davis feels closest to the three men he lost in the explosion — his son, Cory; his brother, Timmy; and his nephew, Josh.
He’s here a lot. Every birthday. Every holiday. Every April 5th.
“Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, this is where I’m at,” he says, his aqua blue eyes brimming with tears.
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Multiple investigations determined the explosion was caused by the skirting of safety regulations.
The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel found that failures of three “basic” safety practices caused the explosion: properly functioning ventilation system; adherence to federal and state rock dusting standards; and proper maintenance of safety features on mine machinery.
For many families of the fallen miners, the blame was directed toward the highest in the chain of command — Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, the parent company of Upper Big Branch.
“He was CEO,” Davis says. “He had full control. To sit back and look at what he did, he knew what was going on.”
In November 2014, Blankenship was indicted for conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards; conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials; and making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
During his two-month trial, prosecutors argued Blankenship sent his orders from the top down — from group presidents to mine superintendents to foremen to the miners themselves — demanding higher production and more revenue at a time when coal prices were at peak.
Former coal miners and other witnesses testified about the unsafe conditions in which they were forced to work. They said if they voiced their concerns, their jobs were threatened. They said Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors never saw the mine in its true working condition.
Ultimately, a jury found Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards, a misdemeanor. He served a one-year prison sentence.
He’s now running as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat.
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“It’s a joke,” Davis says of Blankenship’s campaign. “He’s putting this stuff right back in our faces.”
Davis says he can’t turn on his television, or even stream music on Pandora, without hearing Blankenship’s campaign ads.
In a press release distributed Wednesday, Blankenship acknowledged the anniversary of the explosion. He wrote, “My expression of regret, sorrow, and condolences to the families of the miners has never been enough for several of the families, and I understand that. And it is also not enough for me to say ‘sorry.’”
But Davis says even during his sentencing hearing, Blankenship never directly addressed the family members of the fallen miners.
“He’s never once spoke to us,” Davis says.
Blankenship continues to deny responsibility for his role in the disaster. He wrote in the release, “Reasonable persons can disagree as to what exactly happened on April 5, 2010. But reasonable persons, with mining experience, who are attempting to prevent another UBB cannot disagree about, nor ignore, the presence of the very large volume of natural gas which exited the mine after the explosion.”
Again, he points the finger of blame at MSHA.
Davis doesn’t disagree that MSHA had a role in the explosion.
“MSHA was part of it,” he says. “But (Blankenship) was in charge. He failed, and his failure took all them men’s lives.”
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Several family members gathered Thursday at the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial to share similar concerns.
“Don Blankenship now is running for Senate, which we strongly oppose,” Clay Mullins read from a prepared statement. “He put production ahead of human life, and by him doing so, he took 29 lives away from us. We urge all West Virginians to vote strong against Don Blankenship for Senate. He was a dictator in the mines when he ran the mines. How will he be in office for all West Virginians?”
Mullins, who lost his brother Rex in the explosion, says he’s disgusted when he sees Blankenship’s campaign ads.
“I think the majority of the people knows what kind of man Don Blankenship is. He’s never one time took responsibility for the UBB mine explosion. He wants to blame MSHA and everybody else, but it was his job to ensure that those guys had a safe workplace.”
For anyone considering a vote for Blankenship, Mullins urges them to reconsider.
“Don Blankenship is for Don Blankenship. He cares nothing about nobody else. He don’t care about West Virginia.”
Davis, who joined the other family members at the memorial, says he’s trying to keep the fallen miners at the forefront of Blankenship’s mind. He posts photos of them on Blankenship’s social media accounts. But Davis says his posts keep getting deleted.
“I try to speak for them. As long as I can, I will.”