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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lawyer for the families of two miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster demanded Friday to be present when government investigators interview two Massey Energy Co. officials who spent four unsupervised hours underground immediately after the deadly April 5 explosion.
In a letter to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, attorney Mark Moreland said the disclosures about Massey officials Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead have "impugned the credibility of physical evidence" in the mine.
"These actions, now publicly known, will intensify public scrutiny of the investigation process and will certainly further enhance suspicions already voiced many times by miners and family members," wrote Moreland, who represents some miners at the Massey operation, in addition to two disaster victims' families.
Massey officials said in a statement that Blanchard and Whitehead did not tamper with any evidence, and were in the mine only to try to save any workers who survived the explosion.
"Mr. Blanchard and Mr. Whitehead risked their lives to save fellow coal miners, including one of the injured coal miners who survived the explosion with their assistance," Massey said. "These rescue efforts were their one and only objective. Period."
Massey issued its statement in response to inquiries from National Public Radio, which reported Thursday that federal and state regulators planned to investigate where Blanchard and Whitehead traveled and what they did while underground.
"As a matter of practice and as a matter of custom, you don't want somebody in there who's got an interest in this outcome of the investigation to have unfettered access to the materials and to the information that's underground," Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin's special investigator for the Upper Big Branch disaster, said in the NPR story.
Shane Harvey, Massey's corporate general counsel, blasted the NPR story as a "supermarket tabloid-style piece" in a comment posted Friday on The Charleston Gazette's "Coal Tattoo" blog.
MSHA officials had confirmed in early August that two then-unnamed Massey officials were ordered out of the Upper Big Branch Mine after being underground for an undetermined period of time between the time of the explosion and when federal officials took control of mine site access.
The NPR report, along with Massey's lengthy response and new documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail, provide more details and raise new questions about events at Upper Big Branch in the frantic hours following an explosion that became the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
In an April 15 report to President Obama, MSHA officials said that carbon monoxide monitors at Upper Big Branch indicated the explosion occurred at 3:02 p.m, but in reports phoned in to MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, Massey officials described the incident differently and provided a different time for when it occurred.
At 3:30 p.m., a Massey official phoned MSHA to report "a hazardous inundation of carbon monoxide gas" that occurred just three minutes earlier, at 3:27 p.m.
"The caller indicated there is 50 to 100 parts per million," according to internal MSHA documents. "There is an air reversal on the beltline at the Ellis Portal. The cause of the buildup of gas is unknown and the mine is being evacuated."