I remember sitting in my home in Louisiana, dreaming about moving to West Virginia, reading books, exploring the history. I lighted upon a book detailing heroic men and women of West Virginia’s past. They fought for their freedom against the Company, sacrificing sometimes their own lives to better their children and their community’s future. They were Coal Miners. These people were not superheroes with supernatural powers, cool costumes and technological marvels. No, these were men, and some women, that get up early in the morning, or late at night, dress in coveralls, pack a lunch and head into the earth to work eight or so hours in the damp, dark open grave to dig out America’s industrial fuel. When they came out, whether or not they were white or black going in, they were all the same shade. Covered in black coal dust, they headed to the bathhouse, if they were lucky, or home if not. They did amazing feats, defeating the Kaiser and Hitler and the Reds with the swing of the pick ax, the rumble of the engine, and the powering of a new miner which didn’t need to eat.
These became my heroes, and drove my motivation to move to West Virginia that much more.
I have met many coal miners since I moved to West Virginia – eight years in October – and these men, who sink into the depths daily have become a fixture in my own life. I have been underground a few times, but it is merely an adolescent fantasy that I could even think to participate in what they do.
Early yesterday morning several dozen men got up, dressed, loved their families and went to work. They worked all day buried deep in the earth. They worked, waiting for that mantrip to come and get them, to take them to the bathhouse, to go home. That moment arrived. They headed home. Then, hell broke loose. The mountain shook, the earth bellowed, and the force of the explosion snatched the life out of nearly 30 men and ripped fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, grandsons from the bosom of their loved ones. Not one of them cares that this is the worse mining disaster since 1984. No, nearly 30 families now only see the tragedy before them – that yesterday morning, in the dark, these miners left for work, and will now forever, remain in the dark, their lives traded for the electricity that I use to write this, that you no doubt use to read this. The next time you turn on the light switch, remember the coal miners.
My station in life requires that I participate in investigations, and I have been to the site of an accident once. Normally, I stay at my desk, ask questions, or record answers, compile reports and then bring them to the Board. To be honest, since I have been in position, I have had the pleasant fortune of simply not having that many fatal reports to file. Generally, they are out of distance. Last night, it was different. Last night, it was in a community that I had spent a considerable amount of time in while I was a community organizer. I still remember that feisty Catholic nun who, I swear, would take on the Pope himself if she thought he was standing in her way. I talked with a lot of miners down there, a lot of families. Last night, I had no excuse not to go, and as the dawn breaks today, I hear reports of friends and family of mine who were connected to those forever etched into the history of the mine.
Normally, I joke to people when they ask if I stay busy. I generally offer the response that if I am busy, then someone has had a bad day. Last night, nearly 30 people had a bad day, and this morning, nearly 30 families we suffer.
Last night, as I raced to the scene, I didn’t know what to expect. You have to understand, this mine is stuck at the end of the world, in a dark holler, between what used to be civilization and what is civilization. The roads are narrows, winding, and may or may not have sides, and if they do, it is generally the wall of a mountain on one, sheared off to make that road, or nothing but a drop on the other. Arriving, traffic was backed up, with Mine Rescue trucks trying to enter the property. Then, I saw a haunting sight, as the first of four ambulances carrying the mutilated body of a coal miner, turned the corner of a mountain road, way up, coming out of the mine property.
Four of them rounded the bend and carried their passengers silently to somewhere. Silence. Reverence. Respect. Family members waiting on the side of the road, tears in eyes, a sniffle. No one knowing really what was going on.
On the site, the mine rescue teams, three already underground, sweeping the mine corridors for signs of life or evidences of death. Four more to go in in the first few hours after I arrived on site. I stood around, praying, not able to do anything by watch. The number of deaths – which will be assigned a number for the report – and the number of missing starting their evil adding and subtracting. They would move slowly from the missing column to the confirmed dead column. And hearts would drop. Those men on the mine rescue teams, they stood around, and I don’t know how many believe in God or not, but it seems to me, that with each passing number, I could see prayers starting to form. Hearts grew heavy.
Then the call came that they were pulling the seven mine rescue teams which were already underground out because of high levels of methane – which causes huge explosions. You cannot enter a mine unless it is properly ventilated to get rid of such things as methane. It was time to leave, as nothing else could be done. We left with twenty-five coal miners confirmed dead and four missing. There is one hope left for those four.
Coal miners are often seen as intellectually impoverished, backwards, backwoods, but coal miners are the heart and soul of West Virginia. These men are coal dust covered, colored, knights, soldiers, embattled on every side, and yet, those men who stood in the shop last night, in the rescue team staging area, cared not for sleep or necessary sustenance, but to be ready, on deck, to head into a generations old mine, taking hours to get to the search area and spending hours – perhaps days – looking for their fallen comrades whom they never met.
I left, nothing more to do – I haven’t done anything – but pray and rest and get ready to investigate – God, I don’t want to go into that mine – perhaps by sitting in on the hearings. It will be the men and women of MSHA and West Virginia’s mining enforcement agency that as to do the real work, God be with them.
My son wanted to be a coal miner. My God forgive me for every encouraging him to be. When I left yesterday evening, he said that he wanted to pray about them. Maybe, dear God, he will be a preacher.
So, my friends, keep those miners who are still missing in your prayers. Keep their families in your prayers, that community and the communities who lost their loved ones last night.
You can keep up on the updates here.