'Just Ain't No Peace': Miners' Survivors Seek Answers, Healing

VIDEO: Man honors 29 deaths in West Virginia mine explosion with tattoos.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH Miners Remembered in Ink

One year after an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., killing 29 men, survivors say they're still searching for answers amid what remains an overwhelming sense of loss.

"There just ain't no peace out there right now. There just isn't," said Charles Davis, 76, who lost his son Timmy, 51, and grandsons, Cory, 21, and Joshua, 27, in the accident.

"My boy, he was everything," he said, fighting back tears. "I can't look at the pictures. I can't say their names. The only thing I'd like to know is why it happened. I'm still waiting."

Federal and state investigators, initially hampered by lingering toxic gas, standing water and debris inside the blown-out mine, still have not released an official report on the cause of the explosion.

But sources close to the investigation say a buildup of methane or natural gas in the mine shaft, ignited by a spark from a piece of mining machinery and fueled by combustible dust swirling in the air, was likely to blame.

The Upper Big Branch mine accident was the country's deadliest in more than 40 years.

Officials with Massey Energy, which owns the mine, have said an unexpected flood of gas seeping from an underground crack probably overwhelmed the mine's ventilation system just before the explosion.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which enforces U.S. mine safety standards, however, has said Massey may have failed to follow the law.

The company racked up more than 1,300 safety violations over the past five years, including 80 in the past month alone, MSHA records show. Many were deemed willful or gross negligence.

And as recent as one month before the accident, records show inspectors cited the company for high levels of explosive dust, poor ventilation and flawed escape route plans at the Upper Big Branch facility.

"MSHA and state inspectors are also getting a lot of criticism over this and how things got so bad at that mine, because it didn't just happen overnight," said John Garretson, a retired federal mine inspector. "They've got to get stricter."

The agency says it has thoroughly reviewed the quality and efficiency of its inspections and stepped up scrutiny at mines across the country.

Federal lawmakers, including former West Virginia governor turned Sen. Joe Manchin, are also considering new regulations to streamline the inspection process and tighten enforcement, which often becomes mired in bureaucratic wrangling.

"While we strive for the safest working conditions possible," Manchin said, "the one challenge we face is that until the investigation is fully complete, we won't know how to best prevent future accidents."

But many touched by the tragedy say they're not convinced regulators can and will take steps necessary to ensure it could never happen again.

"They just didn't take care of the mine right. They didn't ventilate it as they should. The inspectors were there too, and they didn't do anything," Davis said. "If they just keep up the laws they got, that's all they need. But they won't. It's all about money."

Mining a 'Way of Life' Despite Dangers

Last year, 71 miners were killed in worksite accidents in the U.S., according to MSHA. Forty-eight of those deaths occurred inside coal mines.

Federal prosecutors have indicted two Massey employees, including the company's former security chief, for allegedly obstructing the investigation and lying during questioning. No other charges have been filed.

Embattled Massey CEO Don Blankenship left the company last year, collecting a $12 million retirement package. The company's stock recently hit a 52-week high.

MSHA plans to release preliminary findings from its year-long investigation into the tragedy at the Massey mine on June 29. The company and an independent panel of mine safety experts are each also conducting investigations of their own.

While the Upper Big Branch mine likely won't reopen, the mining industry in West Virginia coal country continues to flourish.

And many miner families told ABC News the tragedy has had little impact on attitudes towards a career in the mines, despite its dangers, or safety habits underground.

"All these miners up here don't follow the rules and they never will," said Stefanie Perdue of Surveyor, W.Va., whose son Jeffrey works in the mines. "My son is supposed to wear a mask, but he doesn't, and it's not enforced. They say it suffocates them down there. "

"It's just a way of life and people just keep going," she said. "There's just nothing else for them to do."

Charles Davis, who spent 37 years in coal mines and whose family was one of the hardest hit by the tragedy, said his surviving son, Tommy, still proudly cultivates coal for Massey.

"I didn't want him to go back, but I think he wanted to prove a point," Davis said. "He wears one of his brother's shirts when he goes down, and he always will."