CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Joe Main remembers the phone calls. In December 1984, he was in an Indiana hotel when he heard about the Wilberg Mine fire that killed 27 Utah coal miners. In September 2001, Main, then the United Mine Workers safety director, was at the federal mine academy in Beckley when he got word that 13 UMW members died in an explosion at a Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama.
This time, Main was sitting in Arlington, Va., in the office where he works as assistant labor secretary in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Charlie Thomas, deputy administrator of MSHA's coal division, burst through the door.
"When I saw the expression on his face, I knew it wasn't good news," Main recalled.
After five long days of desperate searching, Main and other mine safety officials declared that 29 miners had died in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. But Main says now that he had a bad feeling from the first briefing he received.
"When you have missing miners and you have no communications and you have all of the signs of an explosion and you have fire coming out of a mine, you know from that moment, when you start getting that kind of information, that it's pretty serious," Main said in an interview last week. "I think we recognized that from some of the first moments."
As safety director for the UMW, Main watched the aftermath of many mine disasters. He's investigated MSHA's failings, demanded tougher enforcement, and was long a thorn in the agency's side. But this time, the Pennsylvania native was running the agency that is supposed to prevent such things. The worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years happened on his watch.
After being confirmed in October 2009, Main promised a long list of reforms, from ending black lung disease to toughening enforcement and pushing operators to beef up their own internal safety programs.
Over the last eight months, though, MSHA -- and Main -- have had little choice but to concentrate on Upper Big Branch: on the investigation, the congressional follow-up hearings and on a bitter public relations battle with Massey Energy and its controversial CEO, Don Blankenship.
But Main says he and his agency haven't lost their focus. Other projects are on schedule, he says, and the Upper Big Branch investigation is moving along at a pace with which he's comfortable.
"Things did go a little different after April 5," Main said. "We've had to make some adjustments.
"We've tried to keep focused on the agenda that was in place, deal with the crisis that occurred and continue to analyze mine safety and make the improvements that are needed."
Main is tight-lipped about the Upper Big Branch investigation, especially for a man who in his previous job regularly criticized MSHA for not being transparent enough with miners, the press and the public.