Investigators arrive at W.Va. mine but delay probe until final 9 victims recovered

By Tim Huber, AP
Monday, April 12, 2010

Mine blast probe awaits recovery of final 9 bodies

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal investigators arrived Monday at the West Virginia mine where 29 men died in an explosion last week to begin piecing together what caused the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970.

Thirty miles to the north, hundreds of mourners including the governor observed a moment of silence at the state Capitol, during a wreath-laying ceremony at the foot of a statue honoring the state’s miners.

The team of inspectors at the Upper Big Branch mine weren’t heading underground until searchers removed all the bodies from the mine. The team from the Mine Safety and Health Administration briefed Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and MSHA director Joe Main at the mine.

The last bodies were expected to be taken out Monday, state mine office spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said. Recovery efforts had been stalled in previous days by volatile gases, but teams entered after the tunnels were ventilated.

She said the crews late Monday were near where the bodies are located.

The state panel that writes mining safety rules and typically reviews inspectors’ reports after the investigations are complete said it would like to join the investigators underground this time.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey has been under scrutiny for a string of safety violations at the mine, though CEO Don Blankenship has defended the company’s record and disputed accusations that he puts profits ahead of safety.

Authorities have said high methane levels may have played a role in the disaster. Massey has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.

Hours after the blast, the company flew Gov. Joe Manchin back from a Florida vacation on one of its planes, Manchin said. The governor’s top lawyer told him the use of the company’s plane was acceptable because it was an emergency and a flight on a state plane couldn’t immediately be arranged.

New York state’s comptroller and a pension fund adviser called for Blankenship’s resignation immediately as chairman of Massey’s board.

Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, trustee of a retirement fund holding more than 300,000 shares of Massey stock worth $14 million, said the company failed to adequately manage risks at the West Virginia mine where 29 died after an explosion.

A similar challenge came in a letter to Massey from William Patterson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based CtW Investment Group, which works with union pension funds.

Mourning continued exactly a week after the explosion, with the ceremony at the state Capitol and a moment of silence at 3:30 p.m. President Barack Obama ordered all U.S. flags in the state flown at half-staff until sunset Sunday.

Beneath a sunny sky, several hundred people held hands and prayed aloud during the ceremony. Four black-ribboned wreaths were placed at the memorial, as more than a dozen family members of those killed looked on. The largest bore white roses for each miner killed, and two yellow roses for the injured. Twenty-nine yellow helmets were lined up in front of the statue, a black ribbon on each.

A bell rang 29 times for each of the fallen miners. During a moment of silence that followed, sobs could be heard both from the family and the crowd thronged around them with heads bowed.

“Our goal is to have the safest workplace in America,” Manchin said. “Someone who’s willing to work hard and put everything on the line to provide for themselves and their family…should expect to come home safely.”

Solis attended the ceremony and echoed that sentiment, while offering condolences to the family from President Barack Obama.

“No miner should ever lose his life in order to provide for his family,” Solis said. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that we prevent these kinds of tragedies.”

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