The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, Three Years Later

Today is the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, where 29 coal miners were killed in Montcoal, West Virginia. On April 5, 2010—a Monday, the day after Easter—the Massey Energy-owned mine exploded.

Upper Big Branch was the first—and so far, thankfully, only—mine disaster I’ve covered, and it was physically and emotionally very difficult. Along with media from around the country and the world, we camped out in the elementary school. Every couple of hours, including throughout the night, there were updates from officials who were coordinating the rescue mission. There had been 25 coal miners killed, and all week, we reported on the efforts to find four missing miners. They could have made it to one of several safety chambers placed throughout the mine, but getting rescue personnel in to see if the chambers had been deployed took several days, due to high levels of dangerous gases. Early Saturday morning, then-Governor Joe Manchin reported that the missing miners had been found, dead. It felt like a punch in the gut. Thanks to debris, dust and smoke, rescuers had walked right past the bodies.

Of course, the personal experience of covering the disaster for me—an outsider—pales in comparison to what the families of the 29 miners and the community suffered. During that week of the rescue mission, as satellite trucks from all the major national news channels navigated the switchbacks of Route 3 in Boone and Raleigh counties, people mourned. They met in churches and homes. The local D&G Mart stayed open 24 hours, delivering food to rescue workers, reporters and to the miners’ families keeping vigil at the mine site. A year later, the community was still dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy.

I’m not still in West Virginia, but I would guess three years later, things are still similar. No one in the area will ever forget Upper Big Branch. But as the years pass, the details will fade. And miners continue to die across the country, one or two at a time. So far this year, there have been 12 fatalities, and it’s only April. Two of those have been in Kentucky.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette had a summary earlier this week of the progress in mine safety in the three years since Upper Big Branch. Spoiler alert: not much has happened. On a federal level, legislation has been introduced (first by the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, then by others), but hasn’t gone anywhere. A similar bill was reintroduced last month.

Meanwhile, the criminal probe into the explosion continues. Two former mine officials are behind bars, and the former president of a different Massey mine is awaiting sentencing in a different case.

In this country, our society places different values on different people, and professions. Take athletes, for example—most can name several who have suffered gruesome injuries during the course of a game. But earlier this week, one of my co-workers asked if any of us could name any of the numerous coal miners who have died on the job. No one could. Today, let’s remember Carl Acord, Jason Atkins, Christopher Bell, Gregory Brock, Kenneth Chapman, Robert Clark, Charles Davis, Cory Davis, Michael Lee Elswick, William Griffith, Steven Harrah, Edward Dean Jones, Richard Lane, William Lynch, Nick McCroskey, Joe Marcum, Ronald Lee Maynor, James Mooney, Adam Morgan, Rex Mullins, Joshua Napper, Howard Payne, Dillard Persinger, Joel Price, Deward Scott, Gary Quarles, Grover Dale Skeens, Benny Willingham, and Ricky Workman.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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