Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A bleak morning

West Virginians should be bursting at the seams with pride just a few days after their WVU Mountaineers made it to the Final Four in the college basketball tournament. Instead, the state is surrounded in a cloak of sadness today following another coal mining disaster that has most of us dumbfounded by the magnitude of the tragedy.

Nearing the end of the day shift yesterday, a blast ripped through the Big Branch Mine that snakes beneath rural Boone and Raleigh counties. The force of the blast killed seven miners riding on a mantrip as they finished their workday. In total, 25 miners have died and four are missing as of this morning. Rescuers plan to continue searching for survivors later today when methane levels decrease.

There should be no doubt that mining is a dangerous business. Anyone who travels miles into the earth probably understands the inherent risks, but they take pride in their work due to family ties and livable wages. But it should not be acceptable for a country as advanced as ours to endure such a tragedy. A disaster like this usually is reserved for countries with governments -- such as China -- that treat their workers like toy soldiers.

Instead, we have a mine and a company with numerous safety violations and past fatalities. There are few characters in the mining industry with such a poor reputation as Don Blankenship, who owns Massey Energy. You might remember his name from a few years ago when he whisked one of West Virginia's supreme court justices away on an all-inclusive vacation to Monte Carlo. Not long after the trip, the state supreme court ruled to overturn a $75 million decision that Blankenship was originally ordered to pay to a competitor.

That's sleazy, but it's still just money. What happened at 3 p.m. Monday has destroyed lives and families. In a country like ours, I don't understand why it's so readily accepted that people might die while trying to earn a paycheck.

UPDATE: 7:19 p.m. -- I thought ABC News did an excellent job covering this story tonight. Diane Sawyer spoke to a miner who was heading into Big Branch as the explosion happened. He described what it was like to watch his friend being carried out of the mine, which illustrated the heartbreak even for those who survived.

They also interviewed the wife of a miner killed in the blast and spoke to her son, who had just left his shift in the mine minutes before. He teared up as he talked about how badly he wished his father was standing on the porch with them. ABC did not sensationalize these stories, but merely let these people speak for themselves.

At the end, Sawyer interviewed Blankenship and she refused to let him off the hook. He looked contrite as though he realized that the magnitude of this storm might destroy his company. The anchorwoman finished the newscast with a story about why people in West Virginia do such dangerous work. The answer: It's in their blood.


  1. The penalties for mine safety violations should definitely be more stringent, as that would compel the mines to implement the safety controls rather than pay the fine and get on with it. The MSHA and the FAA are two of the very few federal agencies that should exist, as they deal directly with the safety of citizens.

  2. Exactly. These mine operators know that it is much cheaper to pay the fines rather than actually fix the problem. Of course, this disaster and impending lawsuits are going to be very expensive for Massey. And it will shine a national spotlight on the operation that could reveal more problems at other mines.

    Do you realize this is the deadliest mine disaster since 1984? It amazes me that we have tragedies to this degree in our day. Accidents happen, but this clearly goes beyond that.

  3. Dude, please tell me you've seen this from your former rag in WV:


    It may be the most distasteful newspaper column ever written.

  4. I didn't see that until you pulled up the link. Sports can help people through difficult times, but they are trivial in helping people cope with the loss of a loved one.

    I find it unbelievable that the state's last two major mine disaster occurred in the days surrounding some of WVU's greatest sports achievements: The 2006 Sugar Bowl and this Final Four. Just when the state has something to celebrate, they just as quickly must mourn.

  5. Seriously. I knew there something in WVU Sports history when Sago hit, I just couldn't place it last night. The blurb in the Post Gazette last night about Manchin "traveling" this weekend reminded me.

  6. Serious question: do you think it may have something to do with everyone talking about the sports instead of mining as usual? Is there reduced focus on work and safety, leading to these accidents happening? Now, I realize that Massey has ignored numerous violations, but some of the responsibility for safety lies with those actually down in the mines. Just a thought that occurred to me after you pointed out the sporting event/tragedy coincidence. I suppose it's a moot point now anyway.

    Also, I disagree that the DM article was distasteful. I think it was relating the connection this state feels with both the Mountaineers and the coal miners. I would also say to Mike's response that while sports may be trivial in helping people cope with a loss, they do represent somewhat of a return to normalcy which can at least take someone's mind off of who they are grieving for a while.

  7. In time, sports -- especially the Mountaineers in West Virginia -- will help the healing process. As for now, there is likely little comfort for a tragedy this immense. Twenty-five lives (if not more) snuffed out in the blink of an eye. Hard to imagine, although it puts into perspective the hellish conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Once again, I realize that mines are dangerous. But I hope we don't learn later that this disaster could have been avoided if Massey had followed the 2006 miner safety legislation.