Read previous Gazette-Mail stories on the mine disaster here.
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Joel Price never took time off. But he had worked the previous Christmas and Thanksgiving, so he figured he deserved a good vacation.
His wife, Dorean, had a conference to attend in Florida, so it provided the perfect getaway for the couple. They spent a week at Walt Disney World.
"There was no work, no grandkids, just the two of us," Dorean Price recalled.
They got home on Friday, April 2, and spent Saturday with their grandchildren. On Sunday, they went to church.
The next day was April 5. Price went back to his job operating the longwall mining shearer at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
Sometime around 3 p.m. that day, Price was deep underground. A massive explosion tore through the Raleigh County mine. Price and 28 of his co-workers were killed.
Looking back now on the Disney trip, Dorean, 52, remembers her husband showering her with gifts.
"During that time, I can't describe it . . . . I just wanted to ask, 'Why are you doing this? But I didn't,'" she said. "You know how you get the feeling that things are too good? It was almost like things are so nice, I'm looking for the other shoe to drop."
Upper Big Branch was the U.S. coal industry's worst workplace disaster in more than 40 years -- since the day that 78 other West Virginia miners died at Farmington in November 1968.
And the Upper Big Branch disaster was the low point of the coal industry's deadliest year in nearly two decades.
Through Friday, 48 coal miners had died on the job across the nation, the most since 55 were killed in 1992, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. West Virginia accounts for 35 of this year's deaths, the most in the state since 36 were killed in 1979.
Eight months after the deadly blast, federal and state investigations drag on. Criminal authorities continue to look into Massey's safety practices, while company CEO Don Blankenship plans his retirement.
Two weeks ago, federal lawmakers in Washington voted down a mine-safety reform bill. Political leaders in West Virginia never even debated such a measure.
Coal prices are up, driven by heavy demand for steel and the potential for a cold winter.
In Southern West Virginia, 29 families are bracing themselves this week for their first Christmas without husbands, sons, brothers, fathers.
"It was pretty tough," Dorean Price says. ". . . And then, this time of the year, it's even worse."
'I just knew'
Dorean Price looked at her TV and wondered, "Which mine?"
It was just after 3 p.m. on April 5. She was cooking a pot of black beans -- her husband's favorite. Her grandkids were playing in the yard.
On TV, a reporter was talking about an accident at a Massey mine. She expected Joel home from Upper Big Branch a little after 6 p.m.
"When the reporter said it was UBB -- my mine -- I said, "I've got to find out where he is,'" Dorean recalled.
Her son, who used to work for Massey, called the mine. She's had him call before when Joel was late, to find out if everything was OK. The men at the other end of the line always had an answer. Usually, they said the miners had worked over and were on their way out. This time, they told her son to call another number.
"I knew then he was involved," Dorean said. "I just knew."
She rushed to the mine site, along with dozens of other families. Blankenship gave the families the news that there were at least 24 dead. Joel was one of the ones not yet accounted for.
"Someone was screaming, 'He'd better get out of here before I do something to him,'" Dorean recalled. The room was filled with yelling and crying, she said. One of the miners yelled at Blankenship, "Who's going to mine your f---ing coal now?"
'I wanted to hold out hope'
By April 8, Dorean had been sleeping in her car at the mine site for four days, only going home to shower and change her clothes.
"We were waiting, praying, hoping that the folks unaccounted for were still alive," she said. "It was awful . . . as the days went by, they would give us tidbits of information, but it didn't look good."
Dorean met with Blankenship -- alone with her family. It was the first time she had seen him since Monday. He was meeting privately with the families of each of the four miners still missing.
Blankenship let Dorean and her family ask questions about what had happened. Her husband's brothers asked about the location of the blast.
"Looking back on it, I think he was trying to tell us in a roundabout way to really prepare ourselves for the worst," Dorean said. "He said it was highly unlikely that they would find any survivors . . . . He basically told us that it was highly unlikely anyone survived a blast of that magnitude."
By then, Dorean knew in her gut that her husband hadn't made it.
"But I wanted to hold out hope," she said. "I was trying."
Investigators and independent mine safety experts believe the Upper Big Branch explosion involved an ignition of methane gas that was the made far more powerful and deadly by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust underground.
The blast ripped through more than 2 1/2 miles of underground tunnels "in an instant," according to independent investigator Davitt McAteer. Underground rail tracks "looked like they'd been twisted like a pretzel," officials have said.
"It was a very violent explosion," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator. "It included a large area and there was massive damage."
Federal investigators say they have found a widespread failure by Massey throughout the mine to apply adequate amounts of "rock dust," or crushed stone meant to prevent coal dust from turning a minor ignition into a major mining disaster.