Death’s presence a constant in mining towns
The Chicago Tribune September 2, 2007
WELCH, W.Va. – Jim Sanson, a coal miner whose other calling in life might have been as an evangelical preacher, led his colleagues in somber prayer before they descended hundreds of feet into the earth. “Lord, we pray this day that no one would be lost,” Sanson intoned one recent morning, as the miners around him bowed their heads outside the Pinnacle Mine near Welch, W.Va.
The men prayed there would be no injuries. They prayed safety would be at the front of everyone’s minds for the coming eight-hour shift. And they prayed, as they had for two weeks straight, for six miners lost in Utah and their increasingly grief-stricken families.
Since Aug. 6, the day a mine collapse swallowed a group of miners in Huntington, Utah, the nation has watched, hoping a miracle might happen and the men could be pulled alive from the Crandall Canyon mine. The tragedy has sparked a national dialogue about one of the most dangerous professions in America, about laws that could make mining safer, about whether a rescue attempt that cost three men their lives should have been undertaken in that unstable Utah mine.
WORKERS SOLDIER ON
But unnoticed, all across America, in the hollows of West Virginia and the mountains of Kentucky, in the hills of southern Illinois and the gorges of Montana, the tens of thousands of coal miners in this county have quietly continued to do what they do 365 days a year: quarry the depths of the earth for the billions of tons of coal that create more than half of the nation’s electricity.
These miners work their shifts and return home to communities much like Huntington, quiet places where parents, spouses and children have for generations lived with the unsettling knowledge that their family’s livelihood is fraught with peril, sometimes death.
They take deep pride in their occupation, putting bumper stickers with sayings such as “Miners go deeper” on their pickup trucks and reminding outsiders that increased attention on safety has actually made disasters like what occurred in Utah rare. They pray.
“Coal miners always pray for other coal miners,” said a Tom Morsi, a 30-year veteran of the mines, mentioning the Utah collapse as well as an accident in China, where 181 miners were trapped and likely killed last month.
Martha Moore, the mayor of Welch, a town of 2,800 people just a few miles from the Pinnacle Mine, put it like this: “I think there’s a spot in our hearts for anything that happens in a coal mining town.”
Indeed, at Pinnacle – an otherworldly maze of underground tunnels almost the size of Washington, D.C., where workers do deep, pillar-supported mining similar to the mining at Crandall Canyon – miners have been watching the events in Utah between shifts with well-trained eyes. Considered to have the top mine rescue team in the nation, the miners suspect the six didn’t survive the initial collapse, but they feel grave offense at the suggestion that the bodies of the men might never be recovered. Indeed, last week the mine’s chief promised to keep searching for the missing men.
And these miners mourn the potential loss of experienced miners and worry that the industry will suffer yet more accidents in coming years as veterans retire and leave the mines to a new crop of inexperienced “red caps,” the moniker given to new miners because of the distinctive color of their hard hats.
But mostly they talk about the sorrow they know has settled over the community of Huntington, an anguish they understand only too well from accidents in their own state – like the haunting one last year when their rescue team tried but couldn’t save two men trapped in a massive underground coal fire in a nearby mine. Some men of Pinnacle still weep when they talk about that accident, tears trailing through the black coal dust coating their faces.
“It tears you up because you think about accidents every day you leave your home in the morning. There’s never a guarantee that it won’t be the last time,” Morsi said.
Spouses of miners live with that every day, but many, like Susan Plumley, wife of a veteran miner on Pinnacle’s rescue team, understand the value of the work. Plumley says, “I always will support him being part of the mining community because I think he is such a positive influence on it.”
To be sure, death is a constant presence in places like McDowell County, where many Pinnacle miners live. The county’s own Web site does not sugar-coat the profession: “Since the first coal mining in the 1800s, McDowell County … has suffered more mine disasters than any county in the state,” the site reads. “These disasters, mostly mine explosions, accounted for over 500 fatalities from 1902 to 1964.”
A sign in front of an area church is even more pointed: “Are you ready to die?” it asks people in cars passing by, many of them miners on their way to work.
Wyoming and McDowell counties, which ring the Pinnacle Mine, are filled with little towns that were once coal mining camps. All the houses look the same because they originally were built by coal companies and later sold to their occupants.
Coal miners die on the job every year, but few of these accidents garner as much attention as the one in Utah. By and large, miners die one or two at a time, in fires, in falls, on the losing end of the unforgiving equipment they use.
“In these cases – and they are the majority – condolences don’t pour in from around the country, strangers don’t set up college scholarship funds for the lost miners’ children,” said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer who represents several families involved in the 2006 Darby mine accident in Kentucky, in which five men were killed in an underground explosion. That incident and the highly publicized accident in Sago, W.Va., that killed 12 raised the total for 2006 to 47.
Pinnacle itself has lost four workers since the mine opened in 1969.
“One loss is too many,” said Mike Plumley, a miner for nearly 30 years and husband of Susan Plumley.
A union coal miner and college professor working on his second master’s degree, Mike Plumley has made it his mission to make the profession safer.
Although many Pinnacle miners have worked there for decades, they are mandated to attend a safety briefing before every shift; they are lectured on the physical signs of oxygen deprivation and the signs of shock from injury.
Haunted as a rescuer by the miners he has seen die, Plumley tries to make training fun. He once suggested that hundreds of miners each put $5 into a hat and whoever became fastest at donning an emergency air respirator mask would take the windfall.
“If there can be any good that comes from tragedies like Utah, it’s that it reminds us not to get complacent,” said Darren Blankenship, a safety supervisor at the Pinnacle Mine.
“I guess it’s kind of like how after you’ve seen or been in a really bad car accident, for a while you drive more carefully.”
Yet the danger of sending men to work thousands of feet into the earth can never be eliminated. Miners’ families know that, and find themselves sympathizing probably more than anyone with the heartbreaking scenes out of Utah.
Susan Plumley has stayed home many times when her husband’s mine rescue team was sent into harm’s way.
She prays for his safety, but adamantly believes her husband is often a trapped miner’s best chance of making it home.
“I’m so proud of what he does,” she said. “He has such a passion for miners, such a passion for their safety.”
The heartbreak of what miners face during accidents is something only other miners – and their spouses – can fully understand, Susan Plumley believes.
When her husband crawled into bed once after a rescue attempt in which two men died in a blaze, she could still smell the burnt coal on his neck, could see the blisters on his ears from the heat he had endured.
And she could sense his heartache.
But Mike Plumley got up and returned to work the next day.