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Families of those killed in mine disaster criticize Blankenship

Geneva Lynch was full-sweat into her early morning workout routine, when the man she says shattered her entire life appeared on her television screen. "I'm Don Blankenship, candidate for U.S. Senate, and I approve this message," the TV chirped last fall.

"I said, you have got to be kidding me," Lynch recalls. "On my treadmill at 4:30 in the morning? Terrible." The former coal executive announced his run, cutting hers short. 

Don Blankenship served as CEO of Massey Energy, overseeing the Upper Big Branch Mine during the disastrous explosion that killed 29 men, including Lynch's husband, back in 2010. Blankenship served a year behind bars after a West Virginia jury found him guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety regulations.

King of Coal

Lynch sat one seat behind him during his trial, eyeing the former coal baron. Her husband of 38 years, William Roosevelt "Rose" Lynch, worked shifts underground in addition to jobs as a substitute teacher, and a basketball, football and track coach. "Blankenship never once tried to apologize to the families until they tried to sentence him." Lynch pauses, frustration straining her voice. "Nothing they tell me is going to make me vote for him."

Seven months after his release from prison, Blankenship announced his bid for senator and began pouring millions into his candidacy, including television ad buys re-litigating the events that took place at Upper Big Branch. He hopes to defeat West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins in Tuesday's GOP primary, for a chance to take on Sen. Joe Manchin in November's general election.

Lynch is reminded of that fact every time she attempts to watch a basketball game. "You see his face every five minutes. Every commercial that comes on," she insists. "Some people go to jail and can't vote. This man goes to jail and runs for Senate."

Federal and state regulators conducted multiple investigations into what happened at Upper Big Branch. The disaster was also looked at by an independent panel organized by Manchin, who was West Virginia's governor at the time, and the United Mine Workers of America. While varying in their judgment of culpability, they all ultimately blamed Blankenship's company for faulty ventilation and excessive coal dust in the mine that resulted in an explosive atmosphere.

Blankenship maintains that he would only be responsible for such an explosion had he been "clairvoyant" and has repeatedly said his conviction was the result of a "fake prosecution" that violated his right to free speech.

When asked repeatedly over the last few days about his message to the families of victims who hold him accountable, Blankenship told CBS News, "I'm determined to honor the family members with laws that would prevent this from happening again." The candidate claims that contrary to investigative outcomes and family grievances, methane gas – not coal dust – caused the explosion, disbarring him of any liability. "I know it was a fake prosecution. Laymen would not have the insight or inside information."

Gary Quarles shakes his head as he peruses a stack of booklets—copies of the investigations handed to him by various agencies over the years. The former coal miner says he has read each investigation cover to cover at least a dozen time, and props open a map of Upper Big Branch's long wall to explain how air enters the mine. "There's another map that shows where each coal miner was right before the explosion," he says, "but we don't really want to see that." Instead, he turns to a nearby scrapbook. Pictures of his now deceased son, Gary Wayne Quarles, who went by "Spanky," prove a far more welcome sight.

Quarles smiles as he shows off snapshots of the former tail-end shear operator hanging with Upper Big Branch colleagues who he refers to only as "friends." He flips a page. "There's Spanky and his friend Luke." He flips another page. "Spanky eating crackers underground." Another. His smile fades. "That thing he's got in his hand. It's called an anemometer," he says, gesturing to a picture. "It reads how much air you got in there." 

Flipping to the back of the book, Quarles points out notes from a number of politicians, including President Obama. "His name's in here. You see it?" he asks, pointing to a well-know signature scrawled below a message of "God Bless." Quarles lets out a laugh, "A lot of uppity people in here." 

Meanwhile, at a Town Hall in Bluefield, West Virginia, last Thursday Blankenship also made mention of the former president, whom he blames along with Manchin for what he calls failed federal oversight resulting in the disaster at Upper Big Branch. Noting that he hadn't visited the site in years, Blankenship calls former a UBB coal miner, Delbert Biley, up to his side to speak about what happened at the mine.

Biley, a 17-year UBB veteran, becomes emotional when he recalls working with his team of miners. "I knew Spanky," he says. "That was my crew." Biley had taken off April 5th, 2010 for fly fishing, but ran to the coal mine as soon as he heard of the explosion. During Blankenship's trial, Biley made a point to shake his hand as a sign of respect.

"Everybody knew something about what was going on," Biley announces to the crowd gathered in wooden booths around Blankenship in Macado's Restaurant at Mercer Mall. "And God, he forgives all." Biley then turns to face his old boss, as he contemplates what would have happened if he had lost his life in the mines that day. "Would my family show love, or would they hate you?" he ponders the question out loud. Blankenship smiles nervously. "Would they hate you?" Biley repeats. "I don't think they would." He turns to sit down.

But Geneva Lynch offers little sympathy toward the man she calls a murderer. "Not only did Blankenship take 29 lives, he took all those lives connected to those 29 people." Lynch considered the impact of her husband's death on the life of her granddaughter, born just ten days after the April 5, 2010 explosion. After learning of her father's death, Lynch's daughter Miki entered premature labor and was rushed to the hospital for medical intervention. The baby was named Jenneva Rose Lynch, her middle name a tribute to the grandfather she'll never meet. 

Gary Quarles, who still struggles to this day to sleep through the night, sympathizes with tattered dreams and longing. From the rocking chair stationed on his porch, he points to a house less than 100 yards away, Spanky's old place. "I used to think maybe that ain't a good idea to live this close to him," he laughs. Now, he cherishes their memories together, and is grateful for their near-daily hunting rituals.  

"Still today, I have nightmares," he notes, rocking back and forth under a two story stone house, ornately engraved with the initials "GWQ." 

"Nobody should ever have to go through what we've been through." He shakes his head. "Ain't no truth in Don Blankenship. Twenty-nine men shouldn't be dead."

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