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Massey settles suit by widows of 2 miners

LOGAN, W.Va. — The widows of two men killed in a 2006 coal mine fire in West Virginia have settled a wrongful-death lawsuit against Massey Energy Co., attorneys for both sides announced Monday.

Details of the settlement, which came four days into a civil trial, weren't released.

The widows of Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 47, sued the Virginia-based company, high-profile Chief Executive Don Blankenship and two subsidiaries. Bragg and Hatfield died after getting lost in thick smoke from a conveyer belt fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County in January 2006.

The lawsuit claimed the defendants knew or should have known that a series of problems at the mine, including a missing air control wall, could kill miners by allowing smoke to fill escape routes. It also claimed Blankenship was personally liable because he had strict control over activities at the mine in Logan County, which is in the southern part of the state.

During the trial, defense lawyers conceded mistakes but told jurors their clients weren't so uncaring that they intended for Bragg and Hatfield to be seriously injured or killed.

"The widows are gratified to have this ordeal behind them and look forward to finding some peace," said their attorney, Bruce Stanley.

The widows left the courtroom without commenting and later declined an interview request. They still have about $30 million in wrongful death claims pending with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Blankenship's attorney said all parties were satisfied with the agreement.

Massey said in a statement that employees continue to grieve the miners' deaths. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with their families," the statement said.

Massey, the nation's fourth-largest coal company by revenue, operates mining complexes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia and owns coal reserves in Pennsylvania.

The parties settled midway through Blankenship's videotaped deposition that showed how involved he was at Aracoma. He testified about approving hiring decisions, paying for contractors and the mechanics of the conveyer belt, which he thought had been repaired just hours before the fire.

The fire occurred 17 days after 12 miners died following an explosion at the Sago Mine in northern West Virginia. Both accidents helped persuade Congress and West Virginia lawmakers to pass sweeping mine safety legislation that requires mines to stock extra emergency air supplies and lifelines designed to lead trapped miners to safety, among other things.

Massey still faces a lawsuit from several fire survivors and an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office.

The company is challenging $1.5 million in fines issued by MSHA for 25 violations that agency investigators said contributed to the fire and the deaths.

MSHA and state investigators pinpointed a conveyor belt as the source of the fire and concluded that missing airflow walls and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors in the deaths.