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UBB widow: 'I just knew'

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.

No miracles

At about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, April 10, then-Gov. Joe Manchin made the public announcement: "We did not receive the miracle we prayed for."

The families had already been informed. But whoever told Dorean Price that her husband was dead is lost to her memory. What she remembers of the announcement is the outpouring of emotion, the anguish and the anger.

"People were screaming, turning over chairs, yelling," she said. "We were trying to get out of there."

Dorean and her family, including Joel's brothers, made their way out of the room and out the back of the mine building where the families had gathered.

Her sister, Alice, didn't make it out with them. She had stayed in the hallway when the mine officials said they had a big announcement.

"We got outside to the parking lot and one of the ministers said I'd better go back in and get my sister. She was sitting in the hallway, just crying."

Two weeks later, on April 25, President Obama led a memorial service in Beckley for the Upper Big Branch miners.

White crosses, one for each miner and each with a miners' cap, lined the front of the stage at the Raleigh County Convention Center. A photo display of the men served as the backdrop.

"Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what we so often take for granted: the electricity that lights up convention centers like this; that lights up our churches and homes, our schools and offices; the energy that powers our country and the world," Obama told the crowd. "Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day."

Dorean Price and the other families met privately that day with the president.

"If it hadn't been under those circumstances, it would have been the highlight of my life," she said.

The entire event -- with Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Nick J. Rahall and the ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd -- was overwhelming. Dorean recalled that Obama and Biden both spoke knowingly about the disaster.

"[Obama] talked about it, knew what was going on. He said he was very concerned and wanted to get to the bottom of it," Dorean said.

The day after that, Massey Energy's Board of Directors held a news conference in Charleston. The company began what's turned into a full-court public relations press, aimed at blaming the disaster on ventilation changes ordered by MSHA.

Board member Bobby Inman told the media that sometimes mining accidents just happen, and challenged statements by regulators that all coal-mine explosions are preventable.

"All accidents are preventable if you shut down production," Inman said. "Mining is -- there is no way around it -- is a dangerous business."

At first, Dorean paid close attention to the investigation. But as it drags on, keeping track of developments becomes more difficult.

"I want to know why it happened," said Dorean, a supervisor at the Beckley VA Medical Center. "Safety is our first concern for our staff, for our patients. I don't think they took it serious enough."

MSHA has promised to regularly update the families, and to hold public hearings into the mine disaster. But so far, all investigation interviews have taken place behind closed doors, and MSHA hasn't met with the families since mid-September.

In an interview last week, MSHA chief Joe Main said his agency simply hasn't had anything new to report.

Main said mine explosion investigations are complicated and doing them right takes a long time. He noted that the federal probe of the 2001 Jim Walter Resources explosion that killed 13 Alabama coal miners took nearly 14 months.

"I believe that the families are owed a thorough investigation of Upper Big Branch and a clear answer," Main said.

Back to the coal mine

Joel Price would have been 56 on Dec. 1. Dorean knew the day was coming, but for some reason she was thinking there were 31 days in November.

"I guess that's what made it somewhat difficult," she said. "I kept getting texts from family saying, 'I love you.' I was wondering what was going on."

It wasn't until Dorean talked to her secretary that she realized she'd gotten her days mixed up.

Joel and Dorean were married for 10 years. Joel was a day treatment specialist at a mental health center in Fayette County when they met, but went back into mining after they got married. The work was physically demanding, but the money was better.

"I left it up to him," Dorean says of that decision.

Three years ago, Dorean was treated for breast cancer. She's been cancer free ever since, but the treatment wasn't easy. She and her sister would drive to Charleston, fly to Philadelphia, spend the night there, and then she'd get her treatment and fly back.

Joel had cared for her during the exhausting treatments. She remembers him finding her in bed after her first treatment when he got home from the mine.

"He was used to seeing me up and about and very active . . .  . He just choked up from seeing me in bed," she said.

Dorean's treatments were finished by May 2008 and the two would have another two years together.

Now, she lives in their house in Beckley, alone. She's getting used to changing her own oil, sweeping the snow off her walkways -- doing the things Joel used to do for her.

One night during the Disney vacation, Joel and Dorean ate at Planet Hollywood just outside their hotel. Then they walked around, talking about who they would to invite to their wedding vow renewal ceremony in June. They had already picked out the rings.

As they walked, Joel seemed so happy to have time away from work and with his wife.

"But then I remember him saying, 'The guys I work with, they'll stick their necks out for you. I know that every guy I work with, they have my back and they know I've got their back.'"

In Monday's Charleston Gazette: MSHA chief Joe Main looks back on the coal industry's deadliest year since 1992.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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