Speak Your Piece: Scotia Then and Now

Forty years ago this month, the Scotia mine explosions killed 26 men. Current deaths from work-related accidents are a fraction of what they were in 1976. But miners face other dangers more deadly but less discussed.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Forty years ago today the second of two methane explosions ripped through the Scotia coal mine in Letcher County, Kentucky, killing 11 people. Two days earlier, another explosion at Scotia killed 15 miners. In 2010, when the state dedicated a historical marker near the mine, documentary filmmaker Mimi Pickering wrote this remembrance (originally publishedin the Daily Yonder March 19, 2010). From 2001 to 2010, 328 coal miners died in work accidents, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration. During the same period, 1,437 people died of pneumoconiosis, or black lung, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

On March 9, 2010, a crowd of around 300 gathered in the lot next to the small house that serves as the Scotia Employees Association headquarters for a memorial ceremony. We were in the far southeastern corner of Kentucky to witness the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating the Scotia Mine Disaster of 1976 and the 26 coal miners who died there in two explosions within two days.

On March 9, 34 years ago, we got word in Whitesburg of an explosion at Scotia. The mine employed a lot of local men. It paid good wages, but everyone knew Scotia was “gassy” and a dangerous place to work. We weren’t reporters, but as documentary filmmakers we figured we had some responsibility to cover a disaster taking place in our own county.

I was only 23, but sadly this was not my first coalmine related tragedy. I had just completed a documentary on the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood, a horrendous West Virginia disaster in which 125 men, women and children were killed when a dam collapsed due to coal company negligence.

It was a gray, drizzling afternoon in 1976 when we drove Highway 119 up and over Pine Mountain past the Oven Fork post office to where the Scotia Mine road joins the highway. Family, friends and neighbors of Scotia miners were gathered near the road, where a gate and guardhouse prevented entry to all but police and various officials. No one knew what exactly had happened in the mine. There had been an explosion. Everyone knew that much. But no one knew who was trapped inside. As the hours passed a trickle of miners walked down the mine road to the highway, their faces black with coal dust, their wives sobbing as they ran to embrace them. They said they were ok. They weren’t working the section where the explosion had taken place. They were alive.

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