CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four years ago, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship sent one of his top troubleshooters, Linton Stump, to investigate conveyor belt conditions at his company's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
Stump checked it out and fired off a memo to Blankenship. The memo, dated Jan. 13, 2006, details overheated bearings, missing bolts and other conveyor belt problems.
The memo warned Blankenship that, while mine safety reports from Aracoma managers showed "everything was OK," Stump had found that "indeed it was not."
Six days later, on Jan. 19, a huge fire broke out on one of the Aracoma Mine's conveyor belts. Two miners, Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, weren't able to escape, and died deep inside the Logan County mine.
Today, 29 families are mourning the deaths of miners killed in a massive underground explosion on April 5 at another Massey operation, the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Investigators are just beginning a complex inquiry to try to find out what caused the biggest U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years. Political leaders are planning their own examination, and are again promising mine safety reforms. National news outlets are poring over inspection reports and data, raising questions about Massey's corporatewide safety record.
On Thursday, President Obama weighed in, saying in a White House speech that the Upper Big Branch explosion was caused by "a failure, first and foremost, of management." Massey said Obama's remarks were "regrettable" and the president "has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general."
At the same time, a group of miners is quietly using the Linton Stump memo -- which has not before been widely seen -- to try to do something other investigations have not: hold the Massey Energy parent company directly responsible for the fatal fire at the Aracoma Mine.
In a little-noticed ruling in late January, Logan Circuit Judge Roger L. Perry said he would allow the miners to try to do just that.
"It could be argued that Mr. Blankenship was personally overseeing operations at Aracoma . . . " Perry wrote in a 15-page, Jan. 28 order that allows the miners to put the question to a jury. Trial is scheduled for mid-October.
'We got to get out of here'
On Jan. 19, 2006, the second shift was just getting started when the conveyor belts ground to a halt deep underground at Massey's Aracoma Mine near Melville, Logan County.
Foreman Michael Plumley called to the surface to find out what was wrong. The main belt was burning, he learned. The mine had to be evacuated.
"We got to get out of here," electrician Mike Shull remembers Plumley telling his crew.
During the evacuation, one group of miners ran into smoke in their primary escape tunnel. They had to try to find another way out. Two workers, Bragg and Hatfield, became separated from the group. They got lost and eventually succumbed to the heavy smoke.
After a 14-month investigation, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators cited Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary for "reckless disregard" of mine safety rules, including not performing required safety checks, failing to install a sprinkler system, and multiple ventilation and training violations.
The fire itself, investigators concluded, was caused by prolonged operation of a misaligned conveyor belt, along with the buildup of large spills of combustible coal and grease on the belt.
However, when the MSHA report was released in March 2007, then-agency chief Richard Stickler said the most serious problems were the removal of two ventilation walls, called stoppings, which allowed smoke to enter the escape tunnel.
In the months after the Aracoma deaths, reports continued to trickle out about a criminal investigation. U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller confirmed in April 2006 that such an inquiry was ongoing, but declined to say more.
State mine safety director Ron Wooten tried to strip numerous Aracoma foremen of their mining licenses, but was thwarted when the men refused to answer questions, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. During one mine safety board meeting in March 2007, lawyers for several foremen said their clients had been told they were "targets" of the inquiry or were "persons of interest" to federal prosecutors.
The wrongful-death case
In November 2008, lawyers, spectators and local news media crowded into a Logan County courtroom. A jury had started to hear testimony in the wrongful-death case filed against Aracoma Coal Co. and parent company Massey Energy. Widows Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield also sued Blankenship, in his capacity as Massey CEO.
Wrongful-death cases against employers are tough to win. Workers' compensation law gives workers' families death benefits, but also generally prohibits such lawsuits. To overcome that, workers have to show their employers had "deliberate intent" -- that they knowingly ignored safety rules that they knew could endanger lives.
The standard for suing other companies for wrongful death is not as tough. Still, to do so, workers must first link parent companies like Massey to direct management of the workplace and violations that led to deaths.
As part of an effort to do that, Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for the Aracoma widows, did a lengthy interview -- called a deposition -- with Blankenship in July 2008 at the Chief Logan Conference Center.
Among other things, Stanley asked Blankenship about the Linton Stump memo. Blankenship testified under oath that he knew the belts at Aracoma "had been bad" but that he "had sent someone there to fix it."
"I was operating under the impression that it had been brought to large enough attention that it would be OK, yes, I mean, I deal with hundreds of coal mines and thousands of people, so yes," Blankenship said, according to a transcript of his deposition.
After he received Stump's memo, Blankenship wrote on it, "Shouldn't we fire Carl White and Larry Gibson," referring to two Aracoma workers charged with checking belt conditions.
Blankenship said in his deposition that he "thought we should discipline, discharge or do something with the people who were perhaps not doing their part."
White was not fired, and was still working at Aracoma the day of the fire. Stanley said his lawsuit uncovered no evidence that Gibson was fired.
Fair 'by West Virginia standards'
During the trial, Stanley showed the Logan jury videotape of parts of Blankenship's deposition.
Jurors heard that Blankenship received mine-by-mine production reports every two hours, and insisted on detailed memos on everything from conveyor belt breakdowns to parts inventories.