They also heard Blankenship answer questions about the Stump memo.
That was on a Friday afternoon. On Monday morning, lawyers announced in court that they had reached a settlement during the weekend. Aracoma Coal would pay an undisclosed sum to the Bragg and Hatfield families. Claims against Massey and Blankenship would be dropped.
A few days later, Blankenship told a statewide radio audience that the undisclosed settlement amount was fair "by West Virginia standards," given what he called the state's "very liberal" court system.
About a month later, two days before Christmas in 2008, U.S. Attorney Miller held a news conference at the federal building in Charleston.
Prosecutors had reached a deal with Massey and its subsidiaries. The Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary would plead guilty to 10 criminal mine safety violations and pay $2.5 million in fines. Aracoma would pay another $1.7 million in civil penalties, to settle the violations cited by MSHA. The total penalty, $4.2 million, was the largest government penalty ever in a coal-mining death case, prosecutors said.
As part of the deal, Miller agreed that prosecutors would not pursue charges against parent company Massey or any of its officers or employees. A joint statement from prosecutors and the company said the government did not have evidence that Massey "knew, approved, or acquiesced in" Aracoma's faking of escapeway drill logs, the only felony included in the plea agreement.
In mid-January, when U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver conducted a hearing to consider approval of the plea bargain, widow Delorice Bragg stood up in court and read a statement opposing the deal.
Bragg told Copenhaver that evidence in the widows' case "made it clear that Massey executives much farther up the line expected the Alma Mine to emphasize production over the safety of the coal miners inside.
"If Massey executives have done nothing wrong and bear no criminal responsibility for the fire that killed Don and Elvis, then why do they need the deal?" Bragg asked. "If they're innocent, they don't."
When he approved the plea deal in April 2009, Copenhaver called the nonprosecution agreement "unusual," but said it was up to prosecutors to make such decisions.
"The government informs the court that it lacks a case in that respect, and the court accepts the government at its word," Copenhaver said.
'Personally running the show'
Over the past two years, at least nine survivors of the Aracoma fire have waged their own court battle against Massey. They say they inhaled smoke from the fire, causing long-term health concerns, and say the experience has caused them serious emotional problems. The survivors are suing Aracoma Coal Co., and their lawyers also are trying to move up the corporate ladder to parent company Massey Energy.
Massey tried to have the case against the parent company thrown out. Massey's lawyers argued, among other things, that the Linton Stump memo did not show that Massey or Blankenship did anything wrong.
In legal filings, Massey lawyers say neither of the belts discussed in the memo were the one that caught fire.
"All mines contain conveyor belts," Massey lawyers wrote. "Conveyor belts are essential to move coal from the inside of the mine to the outside of the mine and eventually to the customer buying the coal.
"Consequently, the fact that upper management in the Massey companies kept abreast of problems with the belts is unremarkable," the lawyers wrote. "Indifference to the belts and associated problems would be noteworthy.
"How this memo can support a claim of directly liability for the Jan. 19, 2006, fire is simply beyond comprehension," Massey lawyers wrote.
Lawyers for the miners disagreed.
"Don Blankenship was aware of the belt problems at Aracoma and personally sent Linton Stump to assess the situation," they wrote. "It is obvious that Mr. Blankenship was ignoring the corporate structure and personally running the show at Aracoma."
Judge Perry, in his Jan. 28 ruling, found the question was "an issue of fact" that a jury should decide at trial.
'Safety, accountability and responsibility'
While the wrongful-death lawsuit and the Aracoma criminal case were making their way through state and federal courts, safety problems were on the rise at another Massey mine, in Raleigh County.
Between 2008 and 2009, citations at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal doubled. MSHA records show that agency inspectors issued 48 orders for "unwarrantable failure" to comply with safety rules in 2009 alone. The mine repeatedly was cited for serious ventilation violations and for accumulations of coal dust. Proposed fines tripled, to nearly $900,000 last year.
Then, at 3:02 p.m. on April 5, carbon monoxide alarms went off deep inside the mine. A huge explosion -- possibly an ignition of methane made worse by a buildup of coal dust -- ripped through the mine. Twenty-nine workers never made it out alive. Two others were injured.
In a preliminary report to Obama, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Upper Big Branch's rate of serious withdrawal orders was 19 times the national rate. Still, the report said, at least three other Massey mines had more total citations than Upper Big Branch.
"In short, this was a mine with a significant history of safety issues, a mine operated by a company with a history of violations, and a mine and company that MSHA was watching closely," the Labor Department report said.
Massey issued a response, saying the company "believes in safety, accountability and responsibility."
"We seek the truth in the ongoing investigation and are cooperating with federal and state agencies to determine the cause of the tragic accident at Upper Big Branch Mine," Massey said. "Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame."
The Bragg and Hatfield families are keeping up with news of the Upper Big Branch disaster. Last week, Stanley released a brief statement on their behalf:
"We were highly disappointed by the U.S. Attorney's agreement not to look upstream," the statement said. "We were concerned that the agreement sent a very dangerous message -- that Blankenship's micro-management style was OK, certainly that there was nothing the feds felt like they could do about it.
"The fear now, of course, is that the same circumstances we discovered at Aracoma may be about to resurface at Upper Big Branch."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.