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Profile: Don L. Blankenship, the self-assured chief executive of Massey Energy

He met with families of the miners all afternoon Wednesday, except for a short period when he met with federal mine safety officials and then briefed the governor. He intended to continue meeting with the families into the evening, the company said in a statement. The company's chief operating officer, Chris Adkins, has been directing rescue efforts.

Since Blankenship signed on as an executive with a Massey subsidiary in 1982, and worked his way up to the top job by 2000, he has cut a colorful and controversial figure in coal country. Richmond-based Massey is the nation's fourth-largest coal company, but in Central Appalachia, Massey is king, and Blankenship is Massey.

"There are those who idolize him and deify him, and there are those who vilify him, and I think he expects that and sees it as being part of his job," said Douglas McKinney, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. "I think he honestly cares about West Virginia, and I think he honestly cares about Massey Energy's employees. . . . This is just a real tragedy."

Blankenship calls himself an Appalachian guy, who went into his first coal mine more than four decades ago, who has known the hardship and humiliation of not being able to pay the bills or find a job. During his youth near Matewan, W.Va., along the Kentucky border, he trapped muskrats for 50 cents apiece.

Now a dark-eyed, generously jowled CEO whose 2008 total compensation exceeded $11 million, Blankenship related such childhood anecdotes during a September rally opposing the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Wearing a star-spangled ball cap and a polo shirt patterned after the American flag, he also chided the federal government for using "our own taxes to destroy our own jobs."

"As someone who has overseen the mining of more coal than anyone else in the history of Central Appalachia, I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job," he said that day from the dais on a reclaimed mountaintop removal site in Holden, W.Va. "But I also know that Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miners' safety. The very idea that they care more about coal-miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming."

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Blankenship was raised by a single mother in the little town of Delorme, in southwestern West Virginia, close to the Kentucky border. The town is not far from Matewan, in Mingo County, which figured in the labor strife of the 1920s when miners struggled to unionize.

But Blankenship's was not a union household. His mother, Nancy, worked seven days a week in a grocery. He received a degree in accounting from Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Before he graduated, he took time off to make money working in a coal mine -- in a union job. After graduation, he took accounting jobs in various food companies before becoming a manager at a Massey subsidiary.

Blankenship was Massey's point man in 1984 when the United Mine Workers went on strike. The miners said Massey was trying to break the union by not joining most other major coal producers in signing a labor agreement. Massey wanted separate contracts for each of its many subsidiaries. That's when Blankenship said 11 bullets were shot into his office. Union workers said they were shot at, too.

Blankenship told The Washington Post at the time: "I'm ready to be killed. . . . The [union] is trying to take away our freedom. We don't have any love for the union."

That was the year Cecil E. Roberts, the current international president of the United Mine Workers of America, met Blankenship. "He did something we hadn't seen in the coal fields since the 1920s," Roberts said. "He brought in replacement workers, armed security."

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