Her brother, Dean Jones, and 28 others are dead. The CEO -- the first company head ever to be found guilty of a workplace safety crime -- can serve only up to a year in jail for "conspiracy to violate mine safety laws." That's a "perversion of justice" says Jones' sister, Judy Peterson. She and others impacted by the explosion, including miners who worked for Don Blankenship, victims' relatives, jurors and prosecutors speak to Anderson Cooper for a report on the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. Cooper's story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, March 6 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Three state and federal investigations concluded that the deadly explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, in 2010 was preventable -- the result of a failure to heed basic safety rules. Prosecutors accused Blankenship, then chairman and CEO of the mine's owner, the Massey Energy Company, of ignoring safety laws and fostering a corporate mentality that put profits over safety that led to unsafe conditions that caused the explosion. A jury found him guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety laws, but did not convict him of other more serious charges. It was the first time a company CEO had been found guilty of a work safety crime, but the misdemeanor conviction angered relatives of the victims.
Peterson's brother was 50 years old and the shift supervisor in the mine. "Twenty-nine people are gone. And that's a misdemeanor," says Peterson. "That's a perversion of justice."
Jurors too were surprised and angered to learn the count they convicted Blankenship of was a misdemeanor with a maximum one-year sentence. Under the law, they are not allowed to know whether the charges they consider are felonies or misdemeanors. "None of us actually knew. In terms of what the time was for the charges. I was...pretty pissed," said Kevin, one of the jurors in the federal trial. "Another juror, Pam, said, "I actually thought they were all felony charges." Sherry, who also served on the jury, tells Cooper, "There was no justice."
Stanley Stewart survived the blast that killed so many of his friends. "It was an early 1900s type of explosion. Conditions should never have existed for that to take place," said Stewart, who worked at Upper Big Branch for 15 years. 60 Minutes will show photos of the damage taken by the Mine Safety and Health Administration that have never been seen before.
Blankenship's lawyers told 60 Minutes in a letter that there was no evidence their client participated in any conspiracy and that the explosion was caused by a sudden burst of natural gas.
Stewart blames the former company head. "Don Blankenship has said this was just an Act of God. That these kinds of things happen in coal mining. Well, you know, Don Blankenship, I'd like to take those words and stuff them right back down his throat because that was not an Act of God. That was man-made 100 percent," he says.
The lead prosecutor in the case, Asst. U.S. Atty. Steve Ruby, tells Cooper, "Do we think that a one year sentence for what Don Blankenship has been convicted of is enough? No. We don't. But it's at least, right now, what the law gives us to work with.