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Coal miners are not cute and helpless like baby seals. They’re not entertaining like dolphins. There will never be celebrity-studded protests and fundraisers organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Miners. As a matter of fact, the animal rights groups in this country would have never allowed a crew of chipmunks with tiny tool belts to be sent into such an unsafe work environment.

Miners are also not particularly good candidates for PR ventures, for interviews or even for a reality TV show. They’re not known for their movie star good looks or their exciting, emotionally charged social lives unless Wing Night at Sweetwater’s or hanging out in a wood-paneled basement watching NFL highlights suddenly becomes something worth chronicling. They live in tight-knit, closed-off communities and have a profound distrust of outsiders.

Each time a new disaster puts miners in the news, the press tries to make them into heroes but they don’t quite fit the bill. They don’t march off to war or rush into burning buildings or rid our streets of crime. They don’t swear an oath to protect and serve, and they won’t have American flags draped over their coffins even though they do wear American flags on their helmets. We want to portray the way these men died as an act of heroism when, actually, it was just a really bad day at work.

If they can’t be heroes then they must be victims of a terrible tragedy but as in the case of this latest mining disaster, all too often the tragedy was foreseeable and nothing was done to stop it. Labeling people who dare to point out unpleasant truths as traitors and embracing instead those who disregard problems and spout feel-good rhetoric is one of our great American pastimes, but it’s a dangerous practice with long-term ill effects. It’s what leads to kids graduating from high school without being able to read. It’s how mines continue to operate with countless safety violations. It’s how your sister ended up marrying that moron.

I’m a novelist; not an expert on coal mining. I’m not a politician with an agenda to push. I’m not a reporter presenting facts and I’m not a sociologist documenting the last struggling remnants of blue-collar America. I’m simply an author who sets her books in coal country because it’s where I come from and it’s what I know.

Each time a mining disaster occurs, my readers send me e-mails expressing bewilderment over the fact that the people and events in these news stories are just like the characters and occurrences in my books. They want to know how I’m able to portray real life before it happens. I tell them my novels aren’t “based on true stories,” but I do write about the truth.

I wish I could write these West Virginia miners to safety, but I’m afraid their stories have come to an end. In the future, as we try to decide if they were heroes, victims, martyrs or fools, I think we should also ask ourselves what type of character we played in this saga, keeping in mind that these men died so we can have four TVs in our houses instead of only one.

As for the families of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch mine, their stories go on. Most of the journalists will leave soon, the nationwide attention will pass, and they’ll be left alone to delve into the next chapter of mourning in a coal town: the acceptance of the nightmare. After days spent praying that their men were still alive, now they must begin hoping that they died instantly.

Original article link: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10101/1049222-109.stm#ixzz15w5iOCDy