SHREWSBURY, W.Va. ― Don Blankenship had been out of prison for only seven months when Tommy Davis started seeing his face and hearing his voice everywhere. Blankenship launched his bid to become West Virginia’s next Republican senator late last year and started buying advertisements on local TV stations. They all began with a line that nauseated Davis: “I’m Don Blankenship, candidate for U.S. Senate, and I approve this message.”
Davis stopped watching the local news to avoid the ads, retreating to the reliably Blankenship-free zones of hunting shows and Netflix. But then Blankenship’s voice was there in Davis’ pickup truck, via Pandora radio advertising. Davis had to limit his use of that, too, lest driving around town become its own form of torment.
“It seems no matter where I go or what I do, it’s Don Blankenship,” Davis, 50, said recently, driving along the Kanawha River in his Toyota Tacoma.
Blankenship is the former Massey Energy chief executive who presided over the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, in Montcoal, West Virginia, in 2010. Davis was a miner at Upper Big Branch with his eldest son, Cory Davis; his only brother, Timmy Davis; and a nephew, Joshua Napper. Davis was making his way out of the mine during a shift change when the explosion happened. He bolted to the exit, wind and rocks tumbling around him, and made it out alive.
Twenty-nine men did not, including his three loved ones. The bodies of his son, brother and nephew were recovered together days after the blast, once it was safe to do so. Cory was the youngest of the dead at 20 years old.
Various investigations faulted Massey officials for systematically cutting corners on safety and putting profits before their workers’ lives. They found that Massey, under Blankenship’s helm, had fostered a culture of fear and intimidation inside the mine and hidden safety lapses from regulators. Blankenship served one year in prison on a misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. He has continued to deny responsibility for the worst mining catastrophe in four decades.
The particular void left by Cory Boy, as Davis still refers to his son ― “my hunting partner, my fishing partner, my all-around go-to buddy” ― has made the Blankenship redemption tour an unbearable spectacle for Davis, just as it has for other Upper Big Branch families.
“I actually thought he would stay the hell out of West Virginia,” Davis said of Blankenship. “He just won’t leave it alone.”
“He’s trying to put it back in our face. I call it harassment,” he continued. “That’s what it is: It’s straight-up harassment.”
Blankenship has spent $2 million of his own money on the campaign and has savaged his main Republican primary opponents, Congressman Evan Jenkins and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, in hopes of facing off in a general election against incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin (D), whom he personally blames for his prison sentence. Blankenship’s campaign did not respond to several interview requests for this story.
Although Blankenship has slipped behind Jenkins and Morrisey in recent polls, buried in attack ads the GOP establishment is funding to keep him off the ticket, his candidacy is not a joke. For all his infamy, plenty of voters still associate him with good-paying blue-collar jobs in hollows without a whole lot of them. As Davis put it, “There are still people around here who worship the ground he walks on.”
The prospect of Sen. Don Blankenship, however unlikely, has polluted even the most solemn customs for Davis.
On April 5, he and other Upper Big Branch families made the drive up to the mine to observe the eighth anniversary of the disaster. Davis carries out the same ritual each year. He picks up 29 balloons ― 26 black and three orange, the latter signifying his family members ― then heads to Cory’s grave with his ex-wife, Cindy; their two sons, Seth and Nathan; and their grandson, Cory Tripp. There they release the balloons and talk.
Then it’s on to the mine site, where each of the dead has a cross. Davis hangs a wreath for all the miners and lays out three white roses for his family members. He ties a white bandana to Cory’s cross. He looks up to the spot on the mountain where he and the other miners would punch out at the end of their shifts. Then they drive down Coal River Road to the 48-foot granite memorial that was erected in 2012, showing 29 miners’ silhouettes.
It was at the memorial where things got unpleasant at this year’s anniversary gathering. Among the families, politicians and news crews was Gwen Thomas, the sister of Grover Skeens, one of the miners who was killed. Thomas has taken an unusual position among Upper Big Branch family members: She has called the disaster an act of God and praised Blankenship, who in turn has featured Thomas in a television ad and on the campaign trail.
The presence of an outspoken Blankenship supporter at the memorial was too much for Davis and other mourners. She defended the former CEO; they gave her a piece of their minds. A state trooper intervened.
Davis has tried to curb his Facebook time during the Senate race. The night before the anniversary, he visited Blankenship’s campaign page, where the candidate posts videos and says he’ll bring jobs back to West Virginia. Davis uploaded a photo of Cory’s gravesite onto Blankenship’s page. “Here look at my Cory boy 20 years young,” Davis wrote. “Tell him why you chose production over safety.”
The next time Davis visited the page, his post was gone.
On a recent Friday morning, Davis steered his ATV up a gravel road to a former strip-mining site, the back of his vehicle loaded with turkey decoys, spare camo clothes and a 12-gauge shotgun. What had once been a mountaintop now felt more like prairie, with long, flat stretches of grass and brush lying between hills. Davis used to work on sites like this one as a surface miner as they were stripped. Now he comes here to run his dogs, call for turkeys, or climb a treestand and wait for a buck.
The time in the woods is bittersweet. It was his brother, Timmy, who taught him how to hunt, and Davis passed everything he knew on to Cory, who shot his first whitetail when he was 9. Now he mostly hunts alone, but he appreciates the quiet of the woods more than ever. Besides, any time spent in a treestand is time spent not drinking.
“If I sit at home and dwell on things,” he said with a turkey call in his mouth, “it’ll just fuck me up.”
A few months after the disaster, Davis went back to work at a mine run by Alpha Natural Resources, the coal giant that would go on to acquire Massey. He still had a ringing in his ears from the blast and what would turn out to be post-traumatic stress disorder. He struggled with loud sounds. He had panic attacks.
“I just couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t think. I couldn’t function. I was getting lost. I was having problems.”
He accepted a settlement for his son’s death and stopped working. Some families used their money to leave the state and start new lives. Davis stayed in West Virginia but as a slightly different person. He covered his body in tattoos, including 29 crosses along his back and the words “Cory Boy” across his shoulders. He customized a Harley as a rolling memorial to Upper Big Branch.
A couple of years ago, he sold the house where Cory grew up because the memories were too painful. He bought a small ranch house at the end of a street of trailers that backs up on the Kanawha, far enough from the highway that all he hears at night is the river.
He started an annual scholarship at Cory’s high school in his name. The unofficial mission is to give kids better options than hoping for a coal resurgence. The lack of good-paying work is why people cling to someone like Blankenship, Davis said.
“Just look around you. There ain’t a hellacious lot to do here if you didn’t go to college,” he said. “The guys who support [Blankenship] ― they don’t have other options as far as jobs go.”
Moving on has not been easy. He ends up at Cory’s grave every other night or so, drinking a beer and turning one upside down for his son. Cory’s friends are at the stage where they’ve started families, and Davis finds himself wondering if Cory would have had a son, too: “Would he have been tall or short, fat or skinny, would he have looked more like him or more like her, and other questions we’ll never know the answer to.”
Blankenship’s visibility and lack of contrition have made it all the harder. He has maintained, contrary to official investigations, that the root cause of the blast at Upper Big Branch was a sudden influx of natural gas in the mine, rather than an excessive amount of coal dust, which is highly explosive. The distinction is crucial. Coal operators have an obligation to keep coal dust levels in check, through sufficient ventilation and rock-dusting, a process that neutralizes coal dust with pulverized limestone.
What happened at Upper Big Branch was investigated by federal regulators, state regulators, the United Mine Workers of America union, and an independent panel established by Manchin, who was West Virginia’s governor at the time. To varying degrees, they all faulted Massey for poor ventilation and inadequate rock-dusting practices in the mine.
The explosion likely started when the shearer on a mining machine ignited a methane fireball, thanks in part to poorly maintained equipment. But it would have been the high levels of coal dust that sent it ripping through more than 2 miles of the mine shaft, so that even men far from the blast couldn’t escape. (The UMWA went so far as to title its report “Industrial Homicide.”)
Davis remembers the dust being so thick that day he could see it. Other miners recalled the air belowground flowing in odd directions before the explosion.
Blankenship’s natural gas theory conveniently absolves him of the chronic failures investigators found.
“It’s just not substantiated,” said Celeste Monforton, a safety expert who was part of the independent panel, which also faulted federal and state regulators for not adequately policing Massey.
“It was a coal dust explosion. The fingerprint mapping that was done to find a cause ― all of that evidence indicated that,” she said. “All of the analytical work that was done, taking all the dust samples, an extraordinary amount of evidence showed that.”
Blankenship has also claimed that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration forced Massey to change its ventilation plans before the explosion, suggesting MSHA may be to blame for the disaster. The independent panel found no evidence of that. However, it did find regulators failed at Upper Big Branch ― by not cracking down hard enough on Massey.
As Blankenship has blamed natural gas and MSHA for the disaster while on the campaign trail, Robert Atkins has been there to fact-check him. Atkins lost his son Jason at Upper Big Branch. He has made a point of showing up at Blankenship’s town hall meetings to speak directly to undecided voters and rebut Blankenship’s telling of events. He estimates he’s gone to five campaign events and has spoken one-on-one with 50 voters, urging them to vote for anyone but Blankenship. His wife joined him for the first event, but couldn’t do any more.
“She just couldn’t take it,” Atkins said. “I’ve got in my head, and I feel I’m right, that that man killed my son. And when he killed my son, it took the life out of me, out of his mom, and out of his brother. ... The man has no remorse.”
According to the independent panel, the deeper cause of the disaster was what they called “the Massey Way.” Under Massey’s corporate culture, miners were to run coal at all costs. The mine continued operating even when airflow was dangerously low. Workers lacked basic safety equipment while having to file regular production reports. Methane detectors were disabled to avoid having to shut down the mine if levels got too high. And workers were instructed to tip off colleagues belowground when federal safety inspectors showed up.
Massey enforced this system through intimidation, investigators found. Workers testified after the explosion that they did what they were told because they feared for their jobs. Managers belittled miners who couldn’t get with the program. The company had a slogan: “S1 P2,” for safety first and production second. According to Davis, the joke among miners was that it was really “P1 S2.”
As his ATV lurched up and down the ravines, Davis tried to explain the grip Blankenship had on his mines. He had worked at other Massey properties before Upper Big Branch. He remembers eating lunch out of his pocket as he worked, reluctant to slow production with a proper break. He didn’t speak up about hazards, either, fearful of losing the job that he desperately needed.
He recalled the pressure workers felt whenever Blankenship showed up in his car or helicopter. Someone would shout to him as he cut coal with the highwall miner machine: “Tommy, whatever it is you’re cutting, keep it rolling. Do not stop. Do. Not. Stop.”
“That money was feeding their kids and paying for their trucks. They were proud of that and didn’t want to lose that,” Davis said. “Don Blankenship scared those people to death.”
Three Upper Big Branch managers went to prison before Blankenship, all found to have deceived regulators or investigators in covering up safety problems. Blankenship was charged with three counts: securities fraud, making false statements to officials, and conspiring to violate mine safety regulations. A jury found him guilty only of the latter charge.
Davis attended every day of the two-month trial that he could, making a point to sit near Blankenship’s supporters. He wore the same outfit each day so Blankenship could better recognize him: a plaid shirt with a green jacket and an Under Armour hat. The one-year sentence handed down ― the maximum the judge could impose under the misdemeanor conviction ― infuriated Davis, considering Blankenship had been facing up to 30 years under the original charges. (The conspiracy charge was not directly linked to the disaster itself.)
Outside the courthouse, a television reporter asked Davis why he was so frustrated. His raw and eloquent response, delivered with a quaking voice, would be viewed over a million times online: “If you was where I was that day, and you seen my son after laying in there for five days, and seen what he looked like ― if you worked on them men like we did when they come outside, if you smelled them, and you looked at them, then you’d know where I come from.”
The 12-month sentence didn’t make Blankenship any more penitent. He declared himself a political prisoner. He published a 67-page booklet from his low-security prison in California, proclaiming his innocence and propagating conspiracy theories about a government cover-up. He promoted a 2014 “documentary” he’d funded, called “Upper Big Branch ― Never Again,” faulting the feds for the disaster. He blamed Manchin personally for his prosecution, taking his feud to Twitter.
As West Virginia’s governor, Manchin was at Upper Big Branch in the days following the explosion. He and Davis have since become friends. Davis said he often gets a call from a number he keeps in his cell as “Senator Joe,” and it’s Manchin asking how he’s doing. They talk about motorcycles, Blankenship and whatever else Davis has on his mind. (Manchin’s uncle died in the Farmington Mine Disaster, along with 77 others, in 1968.)
Davis said Manchin’s campaign has never asked anything of him, though he would happily oblige if it did, particularly if Blankenship wins the Republican nomination on May 8. “He’s the only politician who’s been there the whole time,” Davis said of Manchin. “He won’t say it, but I will.”
On a Thursday in mid-April, Davis learned that Blankenship would be attending a meet-the-candidates forum that night in Chelyan, just across the river from Davis’ home. He was surprised the Senate hopeful would have the nerve to show up to a public event so close to Upper Big Branch, an area where Blankenship campaign signs appear to be sparse. Davis had told himself that he wouldn’t attend town hall-style events, knowing he might lose control in an encounter with Blankenship. He decided to bend his rule.
He removed the gun from his truck and told his buddy Gary Price to meet him down at the community center, where Blankenship would be. When Davis got there, a handful of police officers who already knew him came outside to greet him. They told Davis he could say whatever he wanted to Blankenship, so long as he kept some distance and didn’t threaten him.
Davis took a sign from his truck and laid it across his windshield. It said: “Cory Davis 5/22/89 - 4/5/10. Don Blankenship murdered him over coal and money.” Price parked his truck in front of the building’s main exit, dragging a custom trailer that has a dedication to Cory on one side and the names of every miner killed at Upper Big Branch on the other. Davis waited outside to confront the candidate as he left the event.
He saw Blankenship walk to the glass doors and stop, the memorial display laid out in front of him. Then he watched Blankenship turn and head toward another exit, accompanied by what appeared to be an aide. They hopped in a car and left, before any words could be exchanged with Davis.
Another Republican candidate, Jack Newbrough, came out the doors to take a break. “I’m sorry for your loss, Tommy,” he said, shaking Davis’ hand. “I sure would love to have your support.”
Davis let the invitation hang in the air. He thanked his friend Price for coming out, then headed to his truck and off to the bar to have a beer. Although there was no confrontation, he considered his trip to the forum a success. He felt he’d shamed Blankenship for coming into his end of the valley. He noted that Blankenship never looked him in the eye. He believes the man feels guilt, despite everything he’s said to the contrary.
“That boy of mine, he can’t speak out no more, so I speak out for him,” Davis said. “That’s why I do it ― to make sure Blankenship doesn’t forget it. Just like I’m sitting here thinking about him, now he’s driving home thinking about Cory and those men.”