In December, for the first time in U.S. history, a CEO of a major company was convicted of a workplace safety crime. His name is Don Blankenship and he was once known as the "King of Coal." As we first reported earlier this year, the company he ran, Massey Energy, owned more than 40 mines in central Appalachia, including the Upper Big Branch mine, located in Montcoal, West Virginia, a state where coal is the dominant industry.
In 2010, the Upper Big Branch Mine was the site of the worst mining disaster in the U.S. in 40 years -- the kind of accident that isn't supposed to happen anymore. It was just after 3 o'clock on April 5, when a massive explosion tore through miles of underground tunnels, killing 29 miners. Prosecutors accused Don Blankenship of ignoring mine safety laws and fostering a corporate mentality that allowed the disaster to occur.
Stanley Stewart: It was tremendous. I'm no expert but just from what I know of what happened and the things that were torn up in there, it had to be like an atomic explosion.
Stanley Stewart worked at the Upper Big Branch mine for 15 years. He was 300 feet underground and had just started his shift when the explosion occurred.
Stanley Stewart: I felt a little breeze of air coming from inside. And I said, "That's not right." Well then it got harder and we just took off running to the outside and looked and you could see the whoosh just keep coming and coming. Seemed like for somewhere between two and four minutes. And one of the younger guys said: "Hey, what happened?" And I said, "Buddy, the place blew up."
The explosion occurred 1,000 feet underground and nearly three miles inside the mine. These photos, taken by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, have never been seen before, and show the force of the blast. Flames moving at more than 1,500 feet-per-second shot through more than two-and-a-half miles of underground tunnels. Investigators believe the blast was caused by a spark that ignited methane gas that had built up due to inadequate ventilation. Highly flammable coal dust that had been allowed to accumulate throughout the mine fueled the explosion.