Their memorials are seldom more than granite stones in the local graveyard, a name, dates, a death anonymous among those more usually suffered from heart attacks or penumonia.
Coal miners fight a long war of attrition, mostly silently, to help provide the electric power we take for granted. Some miners die. Many are injured, or fatally wounded in their lungs by a career of breathing powdered carbon.
Tonight in West Virginia, they're trying to get to 13 men in an Upshur County coal mine see CNN story - about 45 minutes from where I lived and worked in Marion County.
That county is best known as the site of two major mine disasters that changed safety laws. The 1907 Monongah disaster killed hundreds, men and boys, fathers and sons. The Farmington No. 9 disaster took fewer, but gave television audiences a glimpse into the hard world of the mining town, as reporters converged to interview wives soon to be widows. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has more information.
There was a memorial to each of these disasters. The one for Farmington No. 9 was a polished black column hidden up a side road that I passed as I went to visit a friend or go fishing. Few people knew it was there.
I built my home above a branch of the No. 9 mine. The land was solid there, but cracks appeared in the back fields, the rock and dirt subsiding over the works deep underground.
You lived and worked with mining, with subsidence and ground that burned, with black lung clinics and wildcat strikes, with methane explosions and coal truck accidents on the highways. The fatalism that allowed families to live with the industry permeated those who had no direct connection to coal. We, too, listened for the sound of a siren, for the rumble of a blast.
I was in the news business. I never covered a major disaster, though we had our share of stories on lives lost, one by one, to roof falls, and electrocutions, and collapses.
I went down in the mines, twice, once in Pennsylvania, once in West Virginia. I rode the "man trips" that rattled their way into the mine, trollies powered by naked electric lines. I was unreeled into the earth in a slope mine, descending gradually into the strata.
It was cold, and wet. Rats. The smell of urine. The bizarre whiteness of walls powered with rock dust to prevent explosions. The roar of continuous miners and the high-tech high-powered extrication of the longwalls. Symbols on the walls that marked rescue gear and the route up.
I remember the faces under the mine hats, at once strong and vulnerable. The weight of the belt you wore with the a self-rescuer attached.
We were inside the longwall machine when it hit a pocket of methane and all electricity was instantly cut. The darkness closed in around the lights on our helmets.
One of our tour group asked if we should walk out, and the supervisor leaned back, laughing. It'll be a long walk, he said. We're three miles in. We could hear the earth groaning above the massive hydraulics that held up the roof.
Tonight those men at the Sago Mine are miles inside the earth, past a wall of rubble. Their families gather at the white clapboard church, so expected that in a movie you'd say it was a stereotype. Like the coal-blackened faces. Like the rough mountains closing in. Like the rescue teams on their way into the mine. Like the way I cannot turn past those images on the television news.
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