Life in the West Virginia coalfields is filled with hope, love and the sense that a disaster is waiting to happen underground. The worst happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Following our Mountaineers basketball team to the Final Four was exhilarating. We are proud of our team and the State of West Virginia. This type of achievement shows West Virginians (or those representing West Virginia) are dedicated, hard workers and fighters to the end.
Since the game was played on Saturday and Sunday was Easter, we colored our Easter eggs gold and blue and used markers to write WVU across the top of the eggs instead of using decals of little chicks and bunnies. We wore WVU t-shirts and waved our signs while we watched the game at home. Even though WVU went down to Duke, the most memorable moment occurred when WVU Coach Bob Huggins rushed out on the floor to console injured WVU guard Da’Sean Butler, who was in great pain.
The big, rough coach cradled the player in his arms speaking softly, calming him down, telling him, “Don’t cry. I love you. I am proud of you.”
Yes, yes, we have our moments and we cherish each and every one here in the West Virginia coalfields where we depend on coalmining — a hauntingly dangerous, unpredictable industry — to support our families. Our mood, however, is guarded by the reality that every time an underground coal miner — father, mother, sister, brother, son or daughter — boards the mantrip and travels into the heart of the mountain to extract the black coal to keep this country moving forward and fill the pockets of CEOs and stockholders, there’s a chance of a disaster.
We are guarded because in the back of our minds we fear the worst may happen.
On Monday, April 5, 2010, the worst did happen. Our feelings of exhilaration quickly turned as cold as stone when a mine explosion at 3:27 p.m. ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, killing 29 miners. The mine is at Montcoal, Raleigh County, West Virginia, 30 miles south of Charleston.
A death toll of 29 miners killed made this mine disaster the worst in the U.S. since 1970, when 38 were killed in a coal dust explosion at the Finley Brothers Coal Company in Hyden, Kentucky. Thirty-one miners were in the mine at the Upper Big Branch mine at the time of the explosion, a blast about 1000 feet underground. The two survivors were injured.
Massey is the 4th largest coal producing company in the U.S. The company operates at least 65 mining complexes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. Massey produces about 40 million tons of coal annually and controls another 2.3 billion tons of reserves. The company more than doubled its profit in 2009 to $104.4 million. Massey’s coal is mostly sold to Asia, where it is used in steel production.
Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine had kicked into overdrive to keep production up with increasing demands.
The Charleston Gazette newspaper has reported on the mine’s history of problems: Federal regulators issued evacuation orders for all or parts of the mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009. In 2009, Massey Energy was fined a total of $382,000 for “serious” violations of regulations. Federal regulators initiated more than one investigation into the Big Branch mine. In the last five years the Upper Big Branch mine has been cited for 1,342 safety violations. The mine received two citations the day before the explosion, and in the previous month, the authorities cited the mine for 57 safety infractions.
Relatives of the missing and confirmed dead were not notified directly by Massey Energy executives, causing a great deal of anger toward company executives. The families learned the fate of their miners from the company website or government sources. Michelle McKinney, daughter of Benny Willingham, had this to say about Massey’s lack of notification in person: “They’re supposed to be a big company. These guys, (our men) they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn’t even call us.”
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin met with families at the First Baptist Church in Whitesville, not far from the mine. One family lost three family members in the blast. Diana Davis lost her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 25, and Cory Davis, 20. Cody Davis, a son, and an uncle, Tommy Davis, survived the blast.
The 25-year-old Napper began at the mine just two months ago after leaving a job in the health care industry in Rutland, Ohio. He came home to work in the mines for the money.
Josh had a sick feeling something wasn’t right, he told his mother. He had been sent home early on Friday because of ventilation problems. He penned a love note to his family a few days before heading back into the mountain on that fateful Monday. He wrote to his little 19-month-old girl “Peanut”: “If anything happens to me, I will be looking down from heaven.”
My heritage is in these coalfields. My father was a coalminer, but not for long. He cut and hauled timbers used to shore up underground mines. We were part of the mining community. Practically everyone on our road in rural West Virginia was a coalminer.
I learned the dangers of coalmining at an early age when our neighbor Johnny Groves was killed in a coalmining accident while still a young man. I remember this tragedy as if it were yesterday. Johnny left for work early every day carrying a round tin lunch bucket and a round black hardhat. The hat had a lamp attached to the front. He wore boots with steel toes. One day Johnny left for work and when he returned home it was in a long, black hearse.
From what I remember, the news must have come late in the afternoon, about the time Johnny normally came home from work. We lived on a hill, and Johnny and his family lived below us in a little wooden house in a sharp curve on the one-lane road. My parents went down to Johnny Grove’s house the minute they heard the news. They didn’t tell us exactly what had happened, just that it was something bad and for us not to come down there.
We watched from the top of our hill until almost dark before we went close enough to Johnny’s house to see what was going on inside. Pickup trucks and cars lined the narrow road. Some jutted out into the one lane road as if the driver was in such a hurry to get to their destination they could not waste time parking safely off the road. Some neighbors walked to the house carrying pans and plates of food.
Johnny’s children (4 or 5, like stair steps in age) were running around the outside of the house excited for all the company. They didn’t know their daddy had been killed in a coalmine. They didn’t know they would never again need to wait in the curve of the road for their daddy to get out of his truck and pick each one up and hug them every day.
My brothers and I inched our way close enough to see through the windows of the little house. The white curtains were tied back on both sides at the long windows and bright overhead lights lit up the house that was filled with people. Johnny’s wife was a thin, high-strung woman with dark hair. Women were holding her up on both sides walking her back and forth across the small front room. She was wailing and crying. Her head dropped to her chest as if it were broken at the neck. The neighboring women were holding a white cloth under her nose for a brief moment and then would pull it away. Later I learned it was smelling salts. Her face was white with red patches under her eyes.
My dad was outside with the other men folk. They made a row of men lined up against the little house, relatives and neighbors, most of them coal miners. Johnny was like a family member to everyone on the road. He had a round face and he laughed a lot. He was strict on his kids. He didn’t allow them out of the yard to bother other people. He had a big funeral. He was a union miner.
I remember hearing my parents talk about the devastating effect Johnny’s death had on his family. His daddy and uncle who lived across the mountain nearly died of heartache themselves. Johnny was their pride and joy. They walked across the mountain once or twice a month to visit him and his family. We saw them coming after Johnny’s death. They took long, slow strides with their heads hanging down.
Johnny’s truck was sold. His wife never learned to drive. Lives changed forever. She had to depend on others to come and take her to the grocery store or take one of the kids to the doctor. The kids continued to run and play around the house. They had new toys but they no longer had their daddy to hug them when he came home from work each day or tuck them in at night or discipline them.
Johnny’s young widow made improvements to the house, from the miner’s death benefits, I suppose. New windows were installed and a long covered front porch was built.
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, told the press that the company will pay for the dead miners’ funerals who were killed on April 5, 2010 at the Big Upper Branch Mine.