The pay may be better, more safety regulations are in place, and casualties have dropped, but the awful tragedy in the small town of Montcoal, W. Va., offers a reminder. Coal mining is still mighty dangerous work. The death toll was at 25, making the explosion in a mine in Montcoal the worst such disaster since 1984. The stories are so sad on an individual basis that it is hard to hear them: One man was almost ready to retire; three people from one family perished; children were left fatherless.
Massey Energy, the Virginia-based corporation that owns the mine, has faced penalties before related to safety issues. The company doubtless will be held responsible by federal regulators. That's little comfort to the loved ones these miners left behind.
Or to those workers who'll be dealing with injuries for the rest of their lives. It is a circumstance shared by many who have survived mishaps on a small or large scale and carry with them memories and scars. Though the miner's way has been immortalized in many songs, the impact of the tough life on many was perhaps best captured by North Carolina's Billy Edd Wheeler, a famous songwriter ("Coward of the County," "Jackson") who penned "Coal Tattoo," part of which goes, "Somebody said, 'That's a strange tattoo you have on the side of your head'/I said, 'That's a blueprint left by the coal, just a little more and I'd be dead.'"
The Montcoal catastrophe gives Marshall Stewart of Raleigh a bit of a chill and understandably so. When he heard about the explosion, initially identified as being in a nearby community, he wondered if it could be in Montcoal.
He'd been there, once. It was in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd was headed to Raleigh, and Stewart decided he and his family would head to the Homestead resort, not far from coal country but a world away. He decided to get up early one day and go to Montcoal. His mother had spent part of her youth there, and her father, Quincy Daniels, had worked as a miner. He died at the age of 37 of black lung disease. When she was 15, his mother and her family moved.
"I'm a coal miner's grandson," Stewart said. "I decided I was going to go see where my mother was. Too many boys, I think, concentrate on their fathers' histories. And I wanted to see where my grandfather was buried."
It took him a lot longer than he expected to get there. "All the roads in West Virginia," he said, "go around the mountains. So you're weaving and turning all the time." What he found perhaps wasn't a surprise, but it's something he'll never forget.
"I met these two men, they both had oxygen tanks," Stewart said. "And then I met this woman, and she had an oxygen tank, too. I asked if she knew Quincy Daniels, and she said, 'Yeah, whatever happened to them?'" It had been 60 years.
He saw some young coal miners, who told him their own grandfathers had worked in the mines, a not uncommon family history. And he saw that the "hollers" between the hills "were each like a little community."
Stewart's own path was considerably different, because of the fact that his maternal grandfather died young and the family moved. His grandfather on his father's side owned the famous Tar Heel Barbershop in Chapel Hill, and his father was the proprietor of the flea market at the State Fairgrounds, which is now what Stewart is.
What happened in Montcoal, though, shook his thoughts.
"I'm glad my mother left Montcoal," he said. "It's a hard life. Those people risk their lives to keep us warm."
Stewart has not been back, and is not likely to go. But he has seen what he needs to see, and now can grasp what the families of Montcoal are going through, or at least the circumstances in which they're going through it, better than most.
One coal miner's grandson honors the family legacy, but is grateful that he did not inherit it.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org