Heros, victims, martyrs, fools: Americans don’t know what to make of coal miners

And they don’t much care until they die, writes novelist TAWNI O’DELL

By Tawni O’Dell

As originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette post-gazette.com, April 10, 2010

I ate breakfast with my friend Jeannie and her father just a few hours before he would die in a mine explosion along with two other men. I can remember sitting at the Formica-topped kitchen table, poking at my bowl of Lucky Charms, while I watched him consume a huge plate of pancakes, and sausage, and an entire pot of black coffee without uttering a single word. Then he drank a shot of whisky, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, patted Jeannie’s head and stepped outside into the pre-dawn darkness to go work in another kind of darkness two miles beneath the frozen ground.

That particular day he forgot his lunch, and Jeannie and I got to ride along with her mom to drop it off at the mine on our way to school. By the time we arrived, a weak sun had begun to rise behind a thick layer of dirty clouds and we could make out the silhouettes of two dozen shivering, yawning miners waiting for the mantrip, stamping their heavy steel-toed safety shoes and blowing warm air into their cupped hands, watching the first spits of snow float into the shafts of yellow light given off by their helmets.

Jeannie ran the silver lunch pail to her dad and would never see him alive again.

Like the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where more than two dozen miners lost their lives last week, the mine where Jeannie’s dad worked had been frequently cited over the years by state inspectors for safety violations, which were ignored by both the owner and the miners, as is usually the case.

Mining is a dangerous profession. There’s no way to make a mine completely safe: These are the words owners have always used to excuse needless deaths and the words miners use to prepare for them. Same words. Same belief. Same industry. Very different men.

Forty years ago, a few men dying in a coal-mining accident didn’t receive much attention outside the community where it occurred. Nowadays, a media circus ensues. Convoys of news vans arrive in these tiny, forgotten towns setting loose more reporters across the hillsides than there are residents.

In 2002, the entire nation held its breath and watched raptly as nine miners were rescued from the Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania, not far from my hometown. Four years later, 12 miners died in the Sago mine near Buckhannon, W.Va., and a year after that six miners and three rescue workers were killed in Utah in the Crandall Canyon cave-in. Now in the wake of this latest disaster in West Virginia, once again I’m watching the press struggle to figure out how to portray the principal players while everyone else tries to decide exactly how much sympathy the miners and their families deserve and how much blame should be placed on the owners.

Coal mining is an industry rife with mismanagement, corruption, greed and an almost blatant disregard for the safety, health and quality of life of its work force. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known it. No one has ever cared enough to do anything about it because our need for fuel is greater than our collective conscience on this particular issue. Can we at least be honest about this much?

I can say this because I’m not a miner. Most miners won’t say it out loud. They’re the last ones to speak up for their rights. Not because they’re stupid or afraid, but because they’re proud. They’re hard-working, hard-living, often hard-drinking men who have to deal with the constant physical threat of injury and death in their profession and also the constant mental stress of lay-offs and mine closings. They work at a job that receives attention and respect only when someone dies. They won’t ask for help because they equate it with asking for pity. And who else is going to speak up for them and fight the good fight against men with incredible wealth and political clout?