A crowd gathers for candlelight vigil in Mullens, W.Va., Saturday, April 10, 2010, to commemorate the 29 miners who were killed in an explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Most of the media coverage of the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine has mentioned the fact that this is the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 38 workers died in an explosion at Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. I wondered if many Coal Tattoo readers remembered or knew much about that disaster, which happened just a year to the day after passage of the 1968 federal mine safety act. I dug out my copy of the great book by Thomas A. Bethell, The Hurricane Creek Massacre: An Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death sof Thirty-Eight Men in a Coal Mine Explosion in Eastern Kentucky, December 30, 1970. As I started to re-read it, I found so much that resonated today … so I thought I would pass on a few things:
… To many people, it comes as something of a surprise that men are still mining coal. The general public hears about the subject, if at all, only when a mine blows up … In the mind’s eye of the average citizen coal is something the railroads used long ago, back when they ran on steam, and some people can remember the days when their families had coal-fired furnaces. But that was long ago. Ask the first passerby you see to tell you what coal is used for these days, and you can expect to be answered by a blank expression.
… Coal does have a purpose, and more of it is being mined now than ever before … Steel mills operate on furnaces fired by coal. Chemical plants manufacture thousands of products that could not exist without coal. And all over the United States, coal-burning power plants generate the electricity without which the American economy would cease to function. You burn ig every time you flip a light switch.
And there is something to the grim notion — expressed once in Congress by Representative Ken Hechler of West Virginia — that every time you flip a light switch on you get blood on your hands. The coal you burn did not come out of the earth without a struggle. It kills men who mine it …
… In 1968, when a West Virginia mine exploded and snuffed out the lives of seventy-eight men, it was an undersecretary of the Interior who summed up the federal attitude: “Unfortunately, we don’t understand why these things happen,” he said, “but they do happen.” There was precisely the same sense of shoulder-shrugging fatalism at the state level, as expressed by the governor of West Virginia: “We must recognize that this is a hazardous business, and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a coal miner.”
With her son Issac, 3, looking on, Angie Davis, right, is comforted by her friend Ashely Moore during a memorial vigil in Naoma, W.Va. on Saturday, April 10, 2010, for 29 miners who died in the explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. Va. on Monday. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
It was the No. 9 mine explosion that brought a change in public attitudes, because there was no way to make the comfortably fatalistic rationalizations fit with the facts. The documentary evidence that poured out of the mine inspection reports, filed away in Washington, painted an unmistakable picture of a company operating its mines with a flagrant disregard for safety, and knowing full well that it could expect cooperation not only from a complacent union, but from federal and state officials who kept up with statistics and who accepted as gospel the idea that you could not produce coal without slaughtering men.
For a while, at least, that idea was one the press and the public would not accept. They could not believe it was necessary for a man to die somewhere underground in order to keep their lights burning. For a while, there was a new awareness that coal miners were not statistics, but men. And the necessary momentum developed to force through Congress a new law designed to protect the men who went into the mines.
Once the new law passed, however, it was not long before public interest shfited, as it has a habit of doing, to other issues. For coal miners, nothing seemed to have changed … The miners were dying one at a time, for the most part, and in this day and age the solitary death of a commonplace man goes unnoticed. Reporters see no way to make a good story out of the vent, and the general public, too long acclimated to wholesale slaughter, has other things to do.
… And so there was much surprise when thirty-eight men were killed all at once on the first anniversary of the new mine law which was supposed to have made such a massacre impossible.
It was only a few months previously that another Interior Department official, testifying before a Congressional committee, had offered the flat statement that “the nation’s coal mines are healthier and safer now than they have ever been before.” The new disaster meant, obviously, that he was wrong. Again there was national concern, and again the evidence was overwhelming that the dead men had been working in a dangerous mine operated by a company whose first priority was not the protection of men but the production of coal.
… There was evidence of something even more sinister … In the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act if 1969, Congress had given the federal government the tools to prevent disasters. But the tools were only words, and the law, as passed, was only a piece of paper; it was up to the Nixon administration to make it real, and to use the tools.
… The men who were killed at Hurricane Creek were victims of industrial manslaughter — murdered just as much as if they had been taken out and shot; the disaster at Hurricane Creek was an institutional massacre, a tragedy that was the direct and inevitable end product of a policy dictated by bureaucratic incompetence and political expediency. The twin evils of that policy are too deeply embedded in the American political and economic system to be changed by the passage of law; the same policy that killed the miners of Hurricane Creek prevails today, and there are more tragedies to come …