Time stopped five days ago for the families of 29 coal miners killed in the devastating explosion at Upper Big Branch mine.
As thousands waited, hoping for any word someone might have survived Monday’s blast, life in coal country chugged on, men trudging underground day and night to fill the trucks and trains that haul away coal around the clock.
Mining is a way of life here. So is death.
Just miles from where families gathered to wait for news, a peddler of mining gear did brisk business and tired miners covered in coal dust picked up pizzas at the end of their shifts. In the quiet, humble neighborhoods that hug the Big Coal River, the work never stopped.
“When the World Trade Center was bombed, the world didn’t shut down,” said James Lipford, 38, a miner from Seth who was driving to the V-Mart convenience store early Saturday when he heard the last four bodies had been found deep inside Massey Energy Co.’s mine in Montcoal.
He knew three of those killed and worried all week, but never thought about quitting. After all, he says, coal company shareholders still expect profits. Homeowners expect to be able to turn on their lights with electricity generated by coal. His family expects him to bring home a paycheck so they can buy groceries.
“We go with a heavy heart,” he said, “but you have to go.”
It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.
Seven bodies were pulled from Upper Big Branch immediately after Monday’s blast, but dangerous gases forced rescue crews out and it took days for them to get back in. They hoped four miners they had not accounted for might somehow have made it to a refuge chamber stocked with food, water and oxygen, but word came early Saturday that all had been found dead.
Crews realized late Friday they had walked past the four bodies that first day, but could not see them because the air was so smoky and dusty. The massive blast left the inside of the mine a mess of twisted tracks, boulders and debris. Two other miners were injured and one remains hospitalized.
Twenty-eight of those killed worked for Virginia-based Massey and one was a contract worker for the company, which has been under scrutiny since the explosion for a string of safety violations at the mine. CEO Don Blankenship, who was with the families when they learned the miners were dead, has strongly defended the company’s record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
Officials have not said what caused the blast, though they believe high levels of methane gas may have played a role. Massey has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.
President Barack Obama said Saturday that steps must be taken to make sure such an explosion does not happen again.
“We cannot bring back the men we lost,” he said in a statement. “What we can do, in their memory, is thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability.”
A team of federal investigators will arrive Monday, but for now the focus is on burying the dead and removing the remaining bodies, a grim process that started Saturday.
A complete list of victims has not been released, but most of the names are public knowledge. In the hollows studded with blooming redbuds, everybody knows everybody, and word spreads fast.
Four funerals were held Friday, with more scheduled for the weekend. Nearly two dozen will follow in the weeks ahead.
At Jarrell’s General Merchandise in Dry Creek, clerk Lavon Collins thought about her friends and neighbors and the three dead men she knew, all from the small communities along Clear Fork Road.
“You’ll never, ever forget, but you have to go on,” Collins said.
Rock Creek barber Mark Aliff came into Jarrell’s to buy spray paint and nails so he could add to the hundreds of handmade signs supporting the miners that dot yards, porches and fences across the valley. He knew some of the victims, too, young men whose hair he has cut for nearly 25 years.
“I watched them grow into the coal miners they were today,” said Aliff, who woke to blaring ambulance sirens around midnight Friday and nudged his wife awake.
“They got somebody out alive and they were getting him an ambulance is what I was hoping,” he said, his voice trailing off.
Aliff hauled the red paint to his shop to write a message aimed at not just the miners’ families, but the larger family of the coalfields.
“It’s going to say ‘God Bless Our Coal Miners and Families’ to include everybody else that’s not a coal miner but has a friend or somebody that’s in the mines,” he said. “I want to include everyone.”
Here, mining and logging are the most reliable and lucrative ways to earn a living. Coal mining pays well and the work is relatively stable, an attractive option for young men not interested in college.
“A lot of people look at mining as a job for the uneducated, for the impoverished,” said Jonathan Word, 21, whose great-grandfather died in a mining explosion decades ago. “But it’s just a job, and they’ve got to support themselves.”
Rob Lemon, who works at a mine up the road from Upper Big Branch, thinks about the risks every day. This week has made him think about his wife and daughters, and how it would be for them to live through a disaster like this, waiting a week to learn whether he had lived or died.
“It reminds you of how dangerous it is and it can be,” Lemon said. “But we still all have a job to do.”
In Whitesville, there is only one restaurant amid the boarded-up stores. And two funeral homes.
Just about everyone in town has a story about a miner who narrowly escaped death underground.
Sticking to the semblance of a routine helps them cope with the latest tragedy.
“If you don’t have tunnel vision, if you don’t have the day-to-day, you will totally lose it,” said Patty Ann Manios, a Whitesville councilwoman who lost her grandfather in a mining explosion decades ago. She wept early Saturday as she watched Gov. Joe Manchin announce that no one had been found alive in the mine. “This whole river is a community and the only way to get through it is to work. Because if you sit home, you’ll lose your mind.”
Tammy Powers is trying to shatter a worrying pattern, too: Her 54-year-old husband Fred died of a heart attack five years ago while on the job as a crane operator at a nearby mine. Now she is begging her 21-year-old coal miner son to quit.
She knows he won’t.
“We have no choice but to accept death,” she said. “And when it happens to other families, my heart just drops.”
So the work goes on.
Sarah James’ husband, a surface miner, went back to his job the day after the deadly explosion.
“At first, I thought this town would never be the same,” the 23-year-old mother said. “But in a year’s time it might be back to normal. Everyone will be back to work. We’ll do what we do best.”
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