CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Interviews with rescuers who helped find and pull bodies from West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine last year suggest some of them question who was in charge during the chaotic early hours after the explosion -- Massey Energy Co. or the federal government.
So do relatives of at least two of the 29 men who died in the nation's worst coal mining disaster since 1970.
The interviews show ill-equipped Massey executives Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead charged deep into the mine just after the blast. So did two fully equipped and trained Massey mine rescue teams. And at least early on, even government mine rescue teams assumed Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins was directing the search for victims.
Blanchard and Whitehead stayed inside the mine despite concerns raised by two federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials who testified they felt the executives were creating confusion underground by ignoring rescue protocols and creating footprints in the dust that could throw off the searchers.
That behavior is "the way Massey has been all along -- above the law,'' said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died in the April 5, 2010, explosion. "Blanchard and Whitehead, they just thought they didn't have to answer to nobody, that they could go and do what they wanted to do.''
Quarles said Wednesday he's read only seven transcripts so far, but they're enough to raise questions about why MSHA didn't take over and order the executives out.
"They were acting on their own,'' he said, "and didn't care what MSHA and the state had to say.''
Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the blast, called the company's actions "typical Massey.''
"My impression is that Massey took control of everything down there that night,'' he said. "It looked to me like they just pushed MSHA to the side and did what they wanted to do. They didn't want to have backup rescue teams or anything.''
Officials from Massey and MSHA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
It is unclear whether Blanchard, president of the mining subsidiary that managed Upper Big Branch, and Whitehead, then director of underground performance, have talked with investigators. Massey has said they were merely trying to save the lives of their men.
But in some of thousands of pages of documents released this week, it's clear the Massey executives weren't the only ones who knowingly broke the established rules of mine rescue, charging into the hellish blast scene without permission, sufficient equipment or backup in what turned out to be a vain attempt to save others.
Other rescue team members defend their actions as the natural impulse of a coal miner to help a fallen comrade.
"If you had people in there, and it was your mine and your friends or your workers, you'd probably go in, too, as far as you could go reasonably without endangering yourself,'' MSHA rescuer Virgil Brown told investigators.
But MSHA's Jerry Cook, who was barred from helping with the search after an initial clash with Massey executives, told investigators their presence only made things worse.
"You know, it's bad enough to try to find 29 people, you don't need to have 40 more to look for,'' he said, adding that Blanchard and Whitehead could have ended up doing something to change the environment underground.