Twenty-nine miners died in the Upper Big Branch blast, which mine safety experts and investigators believe was triggered by an ignition of methane gas and made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust. Massey officials did not testify at Monday's hearing, but have said the company does not put profits or production ahead of worker safety.
At Monday's hearing, continuous miner operator Stanley Stewart described being on his way into the mine at about 3 p.m. on April 5 when the explosion occurred.
"We were getting ready to head to the section when I felt a breeze coming from inside the mine," Stewart said. "The intensity picked up quickly and I realized that something bad was happening so I left the mantrip [a vehicle that carries miners] and started to make my way toward the outside.
"Before I could get out the air velocity increased to what I felt was 'hurricane strength' and I felt my feet wanting to leave the ground," he said. "The air was full of dust and debris and I couldn't see."
Stewart told lawmakers there were plenty of red flags that should have warned of the disaster, including repeated problems with the mine ventilation system that were cited by MSHA inspectors and brought temporary closure orders.
"Mine management never fully addressed the air problem when it would be shut down by inspectors," he said. "They would fix it just good enough to get us to load coal again, but then it would be back to business as usual."
Stewart said he told his wife, Mindi, "If anything happens to me, get a lawyer and sue the blankety-blank out of them. That place is a ticking time bomb."
But he said miners knew better than to complain about safety problems.
"No one felt they could go to management and express their fears or the lack of air on our sections," Stewart said. "We knew that we'd be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us."
Last summer, Stewart said, Massey stripped Upper Big Branch workers of their vacations because the operation did not meet production goals.
Alice Peters said her son-in-law, section foreman Edward Dean Jones, had told her before he was killed in the explosion about at least seven instances where Massey supervisors told him that if he shut down production because of ventilation problems he would lose his job.
Peters said her grandson, Kyle, suffers from cystic fibrosis, and that the family could not afford to lose Jones' medical benefits and miner's salary.
"They knew about his son and that Dean needed to keep his job and make sure his son could get the medical care he needed," Peters said. "On more than one occasion I called the mine and told them there was an emergency regarding his son that he had to come home and handle in order to get him out of the mine, because I feared for his safety."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.