On April 5, 2010 at 3 p.m. an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in what one Massey Coal Mine Worker on his way into the mine described as a powerful "whooshing" sound as rock, debris, coal dust and smoke came rolling out of the mine.
Twenty-nine bodies later West Virginian's want to know what happened less then a week ago that took these men from their wives and children and snatched these sons from their mothers arms. They're mad as hell here in the mountain state and not going to take the deaths of their coal mining brothers lying down.
"We want to know what happened" said Lisa Fowler of Charleston. She was happy when her son stopped working in the coal mines, "everyday I worried about him, you know working in those mines will kill you." Not everyone that goes in the mines will come out, it's a fact of life. They live for coal and they die for coal and that's not going to change anytime soon."
Those words are being echoed around the state and across the nation.
Kevin Stricklin with the U.S. Mine Safety & Health Administration confirms reports that one of their inspectors visited the Big Branch Mine site on Monday, just hours before the explosion.
Stricklin says violation citations were issued at the mine on the day of the explosion, but he doesn't believe the inspector was in a position to catch what may have triggered the deadly blast. "...I mean he did exactly what we would have asked him to do. I'm very confident that the violations he found in this area did not have anything to do with the explosion." said Stricklin.
Senator Jay Rockefeller D-WV said: “In our darkest hour, we are a community that stands as one – together we grieve, we try to comfort one another, and we pray for a way to make sense of this terrible tragedy. I saw firsthand West Virginians binding together and drawing such solace and support from each other—that is what sets West Virginians apart, the overwhelming sense of family and generosity that has been seen by neighbors helping neighbors this week."
“This disaster did not need to happen and we are going to get to the bottom of this immediately. I vow to leave no stone unturned and do all I can to make sure this never happens again. Our heroic coal miners have lost too many brothers and sisters. This nation owes it to them to find the truth and take action in their honor.”
"My daddy worked in the coal mine," one local minister said this morning at the protest near the Capitol building. "And we had a really good life. As kids we didn't know any better, we had a nice new house the coal company owned and we had everything we needed just like all our neighbors in that small coal town in Logan County."
He was a coal miner for 25 years. It wasn't till her father died at 51 years old from complications arising from Black Lung Disease did these three little girls who ran out to meet their daddy each day when the coal whistle blew realize that the black coal that put food on the table was the same coal that eventually would kill their father.
Base of the Coal Miner Statue at the Capitol of West Virginia
They didn't know the health risks in those days but they do now and still nothing has changed and this same story is repeated by each person you talk to in West Virginia. Everyone has a family member or knows someone that died in the mines or succumbed to health complications from inhaling the coal dust and gases that poison the air they breathe each day inside the underground mines.
In a statement from the White House, President Barack Obama said. "We cannot bring back the men we lost. What we can do, in their memory, is thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability. All Americans deserve to work in a place that is safe, and we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all our miners are as safe as possible so that a disaster like this doesn't happen again."
“The best way that we can honor these miners is for the Mine Safety and Health Administration to do its job with the utmost integrity and thoroughness. I am confident that will happen. I saw firsthand the commitment and dedication of the MSHA staff when I was in West Virginia on Wednesday said Hilda Solism, The Secretary of Labor.
“The investigative team will now begin its important work to determine exactly what happened, and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main and I will meet with the President to discuss what actions the administration can take to prevent further tragedies in this industry.
Coal Miner Memorial Statue at the Capitol Building
West Virginia's Gov. Joe Manchin announced he will lay a wreath at the statue of a coal miner at the state Capitol on Monday in tribute to those killed in a blast at a Raleigh County. Manchin says "the tribute is a sign to the miners' families that their grief won't be forgotten."
One Charleston man at Saturdays protest was passing out a written statement that said " There has been a long, long list of serious safety violations, and millions of dollars in fines, more than two dozen dead miners!
"Enough already! When is the governor going to call the Legislature into a special session for the sole purpose of putting some real teeth into our mine safety laws? We don't need to wait for the feds to tell us what to do. Who in Washington knows more about mining coal than the people of West Virginia, who have been dying in the mines unnecessarily for many, many years?"
"If we cause the executives of the coal companies to spend a few months in jail for serious violations of the safety laws, the safety of miners will improve immediately. Violation of laws having to do with ventilation, safe escape routes, closing the mine for dangerous gases, providing "safe rooms," personal safety items, coal dust control, safe electrical systems, safety inspections by qualified persons, etc. should be treated as serious threats to the lives of the miners at risk."
This sentiment was shared by the protesters at the Capitol Building Saturday morning.
There are a lot of threatening words that are coming from the offices of the politicians but will anything be done to make coal mining safer for the men of West Virginia and throughout the mountains of Appalachia people are asking.
For every man that risks his life to work in the mines there are a dozen more who would jump at the opportunity for employment with one of the mining companies and they do, every single day. If not in the mine at Montcoal then it's at another mine in some other part of the Appalachian Mountains. The state is economically dependent on the tax dollars mining creates and the citizens are equally dependent on the wages the miners earn. Whole families are surviving on the miners wages as well local merchants in these coal towns who would be out of business if the coal mines were shut down.
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Coal Miner Memorial Statue
In West Virginia's mining history it's tradition for several generations of the same family to be working together in the coal mines. They know what can happen and they try to look out for each other when they are in the belly of mine. They respect the dangers in the mine. They know at any moment in time the mine is capable of swallowing them up and some of them might not make it home that evening.
Mountaineers are different breed of people, they live in small towns where everyone knows each others name. Many of them are family or their country cousins. They share a morning cup of coffee together and talk over the fences to each other during the day, they sit on out on their porches at night and tell tales of the past, and talk hunting and fishing as well as politics and mine safety.
They also share what they have with each other whether that be the bounty from the summer gardens or the meat from the fall butchering and the hunting season.. When one man hunts everyone eats. They look out for each other and help each other out daily at home.
You never have to ask your neighbor to loan you a tool because he is already there right beside you helping you with whatever you're working on, while your kids play safely together in the woods behind the house.
It's the same way in the mines, these fellows work together and help each other while they work. They know the risks, but their choices are limited and the miners need those paychecks which go a long way in keeping their families out of the grips of poverty.
For every one of those bodies that were carried out of the mine this week hundreds more just like them will go to work in a another coal mine next week. They only difference is next week or next year when our future generation of young men in West Virginia enter the mine they won't go in alone they will be accompanied by the hearts, the spirits and the pride of those 29 miners who never walked out of the Upper Big Branch mine.