Briana Heaney Published

Big Branch 14th Anniversary: Former WVPB Reporter Recounts Covering The Blankenship Trial

Visitors look at the gray silhouettes of miners on the dark stone memorial to those killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010.
A memorial honors the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010.
West Virginia Governor's Office

The Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster, which caused the death of 29 miners, happened 14 years ago Friday. Briana Heaney sat down with Ashton Marra, who worked for WVPB and covered the consequential trial of Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Heaney: Many years ago, you were a reporter covering the trials that precipitated from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Those court proceedings sought to hold management of the mine accountable, namely, the Blankenship trial. What is it like looking back on that time in history and in your career?

Marra: The Blankenship trial  I think in the newsroom, we knew and in public broadcasting in general, we knew that it was going to be a really important story for us to cover. So I was very lucky at the time that our executive director and our news director kind of agreed to this idea that I had, to let me be there every single day. I think going into it, maybe they didn’t kind of realize what every day was gonna be. But it ultimately ended up being 16 weeks, that I sat in that courtroom from 8am to 5pm, with members of the media from other parts of the state,  from Charleston and Beckley, and other parts of southern West Virginia who were covering it.  I went in with this idea, knowing how important this story was to the people of West Virginia. At the time I was the politics Reporter. I was covering the government and that was a really important topic too. But our leadership ultimately decided that it was too important for us to really miss even just a single day. it was the first time I really gotta cover a big trial like that. I covered the court system quite often, but it would be for a day or two for a hearing in Kanawha County Court ora quick hearing at the federal court there in Charleston. 

For this we are really fully committed to the story. And I think the people of West Virginia really appreciated that, or at least I hope they did. 

Heaney: What was it like for 16 weeks listening to such an emotional trial?

Marra: It was hard. It was really hard. And I think that any court reporter who does that full time will tell you that there are lots of different things that make it hard.  

One of them is that not every witness who takes the stand is that interesting. Sometimes it’s very tedious, with really difficult concepts to understand. The experts in this case, well there were several experts, who were there to explain to us how longwall mining worked, and how these things could have gone wrong. Tat was days of testimony, sometimes days of us trying to understand what could potentially have happened and what mine safety officials are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen. 

There are days that are difficult because it’s so emotionally hard. We heard from family members, we heard from friends about the loss of their loved ones. Those were incredibly difficult days where you know, as a journalist you want… It’s impossible for us to be totally objective, right? We’re human beings. And that’s how it goes. Sometimes it was hard to sit through emotional testimony. It was hard to sit through emotional testimony with family members in the audience with you. There were several sisters and parents that were there every single day sitting right next to us, that we got to know fairly well. Those were emotionally difficult days. 

And then it was hard just because it was like a marathon. It was a marathon to figure out how to consistently cover, especially as a radio and television reporter, a story in a way that was compelling — where I was not allowed to have anything in the courtroom but a pen and a piece of paper. I couldn’t have my phone. I couldn’t record audio. I couldn’t record video. We couldn’t take photos. And so there’s this layer of complexity when all we have is my voice. All we have is my memory of the day’s happenings and how do we keep people in West Virginia? How do we make sure that they understand the importance and the emotional salience of this story when all they have is me and my voice? 

Heaney: I assume that you met and talked to those family members. 

Marra: Yeah, there were a pair of sisters that were there every single day from Raleigh County.  This trial was five years later in time. But for the Pearsons ( sisters) it was, as if no time had passed, they were still deep in the emotion of this loss. And it was so difficult in the courtroom. 

There were moments with Judy, and there were moments with Shirly that at that point, I didn’t feel like I could be impartial.

The emotion of and the trauma of losing a loved one in that way, I don’t think that we as journalists can disregard that, and kind of glaze over that, in an effort to seem like we are impartial and fair and separated from our stories.

I think we have to recognize the trauma that these people experienced. Getting to be with them every day, there was also a mother and father who had lost their son, and they were there every day, it was a reminder that this is real. Even though it was me and five or six reporters every single day, and attorneys in and out, here’s this, when you’re stuck in that kind of bubble, you can become very emotionally removed from the impact of this story. Getting to spend that time with them and see them there every single day was just this reminder that these are real people. It’s their lives, it has a real impact, and was a great reminder for me why I’m doing this work. I did that work because I wanted the people of West Virginia to know and to understand the impact of that story.  

Heaney: 12 years out, do you still hear from those families? How are they doing?

Marra: I haven’t heard from them as in a phone call or a text message. We had kept in touch for a while after the trial itself. But I’m still Facebook friends with them and so even though I may be not be personally in touch with them, I see them posting the photos of their grandkids and their great nieces and nephews and usually every year a reminder of their loved one that they lost, and who they are, and the impact that their lives had on their families and their communities. So I still get to see them in that way. And every year I see those posts, it reminds me that I was so lucky to get to do this job and to get to meet people like them.

Heaney: In the trial you covered, Don Blankenship was found guilty. He was convicted of a misdemeanor and served one year in prison. In 2018 he ran as a Republican for the US Senate seat. He did not win the primary. Now he is running as a Democrat for this year’s open Senate seat. What do you hear from the families and the community of the Upper Big Branch Mine and other people you connected with while covering the trial about his latest political run?

Marra: I haven’t heard from the families and I’m a little bit disconnected from this community because I live in North Central West Virginia now. But I still hear from journalistswho were covering the trial with me at the time, and journalists who are still covering politics and government in the state of West Virginia today. I think for them, it continues to be a difficult story to cover because fairness in election coverage is hard, just in general. It’s difficult. I think it’s something that we are and we continue to grapple with, as a professional community because for decades, even for generations, political reporters believed so deeply in this idea of balance, and everyone deserves equal time, and candidates should all have the right to access voters and journalists, and have access to most of our communities. And I do think that, in my time at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we had to find ways to make sure that candidates and alternate parties, and libertarian parties, and the Green Party, that they had their own debate., We used to host those debates for gubernatorial races and senatorial races. We wanted them to feel like they had space and they had a platform and that their stances were important and that West Virginians deserve to hear those. 

But I think politics has changed, and the way that journalists cover politics is changing. We’re grappling with this idea of what is balance. If we give time and space to mis- and dis- information and harmful information, is that still doing our jobs? Are we still ethically bound by those things that we say we want to be bound by as journalists to be fair, but also not harming our communities? And while I don’t mean to say that I think the Don Blankenship campaign is harming his community, because personally, I’ve not been following it that closely. What I will say is, I do think that the journalists who are covering politics today have one of the most difficult jobs in the world, because we have to figure out how to get the information to our communities that they need in order to be informed voters, while we are dealing with such an  intense political climate that is full of candidates that have very strong positions. We have to figure out how to do our jobs in a climate that is trying to protect our communities, while also making sure they have the information that they need. 

Heaney: Since the Big Branch Mine explosion, there has been a decrease in mining disaster deaths. There has not even been a disaster since Big Branch. What do you think is the primary driver to this?

Marra: I will say that in the wake of things like the Sago Mine disaster and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, where we lost way too many lives, I think that part of the reason we’ve seen so much push for increased mine safety regulations is in the smallest way – and I don’t want to say that this outweighs any of the work that safety advocates are doing, or regulators who work in the federal government are doing – but at the very least, what I can say is that journalists have taken these stories very seriously. And continue to cover these stories. We have some journalists in this state who have been covering mine safety regulations for decades, and have levels of expertise that are far beyond mine. I think it’s because people like Ken Ward refused to stop covering these topics, because the Charleston Gazette, because West Virginia Public Broadcasting, because insert almost any news outlet in the state, because they refuse to stop covering these stories. Because of that I think we are, hopefully, seeing some improvements in this industry, and in lots of industries. I think West Virginia has a fantastic group of journalists that are not afraid to do accountability stories. And they are not afraid to push back against government officials. And we see that happening at the statehouse, with legislative coverage this year, and all through COVID. We saw that where we had brave journalists taking on really hard and difficult stories. I think that this is an example of a space where there are fantastic journalists in this state who refuse to give up on this story. Hopefully, hopefully, that’s having a positive impact on the environments of these workplaces.