Image: Bob Murray
Ramin Rahimian  /  Reuters
Bob Murray considers himself a simple miner despite rising to become chairman of the nation’s 12th-largest coal company, Murray Energy Corp.
updated 8/8/2007 6:51:34 PM ET 2007-08-08T22:51:34

He’s a bulldog in a 5-foot-11 frame, bellowing about earthquakes, global warming, helicopter noise and traffic on national TV as six of his miners lay trapped underground.

Bob Murray, though, prefers another description for himself: underdog.

A fourth-generation miner who grew up poor in the hills of southeastern Ohio, Murray chose mining over medical school and says he has the scars — which he readily displays — that come from years of toiling underground.

A simple miner, he considers himself, despite rising to become chairman of the nation’s 12th-largest coal company, Murray Energy Corp. of Cleveland.

What he has become this week is the very public and complex face of the nation’s latest mine disaster — so belligerent at times that he has drawn criticism from members of Congress.

Murray’s company is part-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, where six workers were buried 1,500 feet down in a cave-in early Monday. The 67-year-old Murray was working in Montana when he got word of the collapse. He hopped on a private jet and was on the scene within hours.

He has since been the main spokesman in front of the cameras, holding nothing back as he takes on scientists, the media and federal regulators in a way that leads some to wonder why he isn’t expending more of his considerable energy instead on trying to reach the miners.

'I'm going to prove it to you'
His main beef has to do with the possible cause of the collapse, which Murray insists was triggered by a 3.9-magnitude earthquake. Government seismologists say the ground-shaking was caused not by a quake, but by the cave-in itself.

Murray spent much of one news briefing Tuesday angrily defending his earthquake theory, declaring at one point: “I’m going to prove it to you.” He then spoke of building his company from a mortgaged home — “the United States of America is a GREAT country!” — and made a pitch for coal as an essential industry while bashing global warming proposals in Congress as something that would eliminate the coal industry and “increase your electric rates four- to fivefold.”

At the same time, he bemoaned the frustratingly slow progress of the rescue operation and spoke with passion and determination about reaching the men, saying: “The Lord has already decided whether they’re alive or dead. But it’s up to Bob Murray and my management to get access to them as quickly as we can.”

His combative briefing prompted Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, to comment: “It is very unfortunate that at a time when six miners remain trapped underground and rescuers ... are risking their lives to find them, Mr. Murray has chosen to take time away from his urgent responsibilities to conduct himself in this manner.”

While not mentioning Murray by name, two members of Congress — including Democratic Rep. George Miller, who chairs the House committee that has jurisdiction over the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration — issued a statement saying the briefing failed to provide the most accurate possible information and urging that further briefings be conducted by MSHA officials.

“The families ... need and have a right to the most credible, objective, and up-to-date information available about the status of the rescue effort,” the statement read.

'A very volatile man'
Holding back has never been Murray’s style. He has testified testily about climate change before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, butting heads with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. He called Sen. Hillary Clinton “anti-American” for suggesting the nation needed a president who is pro-labor. He sued a Pennsylvania agency over environmental regulations that Murray’s company contended resulted in the shutdown of a mine.

In 2001, he sued the Akron Beacon Journal for $1 billion over an unflattering profile. Among other things, the story said: “Even his friends roll their eyes at his hyperbole.” The case was settled out of court on undisclosed terms.

“What you’re seeing is Bob. He tells things exactly like he thinks that it is,” said R. Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at Penn State University who has known Murray for more than a decade. “He doesn’t mince words. He’s driving and passionate about what he does, which I think comes out. He wants very much to get his message across.”

Murray was acquitted of charges in 2001 that he assaulted an environmental activist fighting Murray’s plans to mine beneath a 400-year-old forest in Ohio. Murray was accused of throwing Chad Kister into a wall outside a hearing room. Murray claimed the accusations were politically and financially motivated.

The UMW, which represents workers at one of Murray’s mines in Ohio, has also had a prickly relationship with Murray.

The union ran a campaign against Murray in 2001, accusing him of failing to hold up his end of their contracts. A 2001 issue of the union’s journal portrayed him on the cover as a two-headed monster — one head with a halo, the other that of a red devil with horns and a forked tongue.

“Sometimes he’s OK to work with. He’s a very volatile man, and I think that was demonstrated at his press conference yesterday,” says union spokesman Phil Smith. “He’s like the old Forrest Gump line: a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.”

Allegedly threatened inspectors
As far as the safety of Murray’s mines, “generally speaking, it’s not particularly better or particularly worse than any other mine operator in the country,” Smith says.

After a deadly 2001 accident in which a man’s arm was ripped off by a conveyer belt at one of Murray’s mines in Ohio, Murray was accused of threatening and bullying federal safety inspectors at a meeting in Morgantown, W.Va.

Tim Thompson, who was an MSHA district manager at the time and now works as a safety specialist for several coal companies, would not talk about Murray, but took notes of the meeting. According to those notes, Murray warned inspectors to back off or face retribution.

“I will have your jobs. They are gone,” Murray allegedly said. “The clock is ticking.”

And: “Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss.” McConnell, a Republican senator from Kentucky, is married to U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Bears scars from mining
Murray — a bald, rotund figure often clad in a sweater vest — says his toughness stems from a tough upbringing. He recalls picking up meatbones that the grocer would save for neighborhood dogs and taking them home to his mother, who made “sop” out of them.

“She would boil them down and make a broth and pour that broth over bread, and that was my meat,” Murray says. “On Sunday, I got chicken.”

He says he lied about his age to start working in the mines at 16 after his father, also a miner, was paralyzed on the job several years earlier. His own body, Murray says, is riddled with scars from several mining accidents, including being hit in the head with an 18-foot steel beam.

On Tuesday, Murray pulled back the collar of his shirt to reveal a thin, white scar he says he got in another mine accident. He says the scar runs “all the way from my cranium down my back.”

Murray also recalls being trapped in a mine for 12 hours. “It seemed like an eternity,” he says. “When you’re in there in the dark, life goes by. There’s nothing you can do but sit there and wait. And if these folks are alive, that’s what they’re doing right now. I understand it.”

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