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Mine Explosion Fractures Dean Jones' Family


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's been a pivotal week in the investigation into the coal mine explosion last year in West Virginia that left 29 mine workers dead. The Mine Safety and Health Administration said there were multiple failures in maintenance and safety systems that contributed to that blast. This was difficult news for the families of those who died and most have kept their reactions private. But the sister of one lost miner decided to speak out. NPR's Howard Berkes has her story.

HOWARD BERKES: The photo on the mantel is from a time when the Jones family was whole. And everybody in it is smiling. Judy Jones Petersen smiles, at first, as she pulls it down, holding her white toy Chihuahua in one hand and this treasured memory in the other.

Ms. JUDY JONES PETERSEN: My mother, this beautiful saint, this angel, has not only lost my sister and my dad, but the losing of my brother has really taken its greatest toll.

BERKES: Dean Jones was 50 when he died April 5th in the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia's Coal River Valley. And Judy was six when Dean and his twin brother were born.

Dr. Petersen: This family will never be the same again. This family is fractured. There's no healing this family.

BERKES: Petersen smiles again as she places the photo back on the mantel. Look at my beautiful brother, she says. With that image and that loss, Petersen traveled from her Charleston home Tuesday night to an auditorium an hour away, where other Upper Big Branch families gathered. It was finally time to hear the official explanation, in a preliminary form they were told, of how and why their loved ones died.

Dr. Petersen: I could never have believed that there could have been such neglect. To allow this mine to be so far out of compliance. And if everything would have been running properly, no life would have been lost that night.

BERKES: Dean Jones was at the far end of that blast with a crew of eight. He was the section boss with 30 years underground.

Dr. Petersen: My brother was an obsessive-compulsive person about these issues of safety. But unfortunately the company standard would not allow people like my brother to look after the safety of his men.

BERKES: Dean's mother-in-law testified before a congressional committee about alleged threats of dismissal when Jones stopped his crew from producing coal in unsafe conditions. She also testified before a federal grand jury.

Jones stayed on the job, his sister says, because his son has cystic fibrosis, and might be difficult to insure in another job. That's how Judy Jones Petersen explains the pressure miners in general may feel to quietly tolerate the conditions at Upper Big Branch. But she has no patience for mine owner Massey Energy for allegedly allowing such conditions to exist.

Dr. Petersen: Where is the integrity in this system? And that has to change. That culture must change. And the reason I'm doing this, Howard, is I can't change anything about the wounds that have occurred for my family. But I don't want any other family to have to suffer what my family has had to suffer.

BERKES: Petersen is a physician, so she knows suffering and physical trauma. And she was one of the few family members who asked to see battered remains.

Dr. Petersen: Because I wanted to know from a scientific point of view how much force was generated on my brother and try to make a decision about whether or not my brother suffered. And when I looked at my brother in the body bag, it was - my brother was unrecognizable to me.

BERKES: Massey Energy had planned to conduct its own family briefing today but postponed it until next Friday because of a winter storm. Judy Jones Petersen says she'll be there, with vastly different images of her brother Dean etched in her memory, and armed with tough questions.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.