It is a fact of life in this part of Appalachia that if you want to make the good money and don’t have a college degree, you either have to cut it from the wooded hillsides or gouge it from the earth.
And every once in a while, the earth demands repayment in blood.
In a scene played out time and again in this corner of America, people gathered in a muddy, fog-shrouded hollow this week, hoping their husbands and fathers, sons and brothers had not been made to pay that debt.
Early Wednesday, their worst fears were realized. After an initial report that 12 miners were found alive, family members were devastated to learn that there was only one survivor. A hospital said the man, identified by mining officials as 27-year-old Randal McCloy, was in critical condition.
“It’s the highest-paying job around, and of course it’s the most dangerous job, too,” said McCloy’s brother-in-law, Rick McGee, 36, on Tuesday as he kept vigil across the road from the Sago mine, where he also works.
“Everybody says you’re making a lot of money,” McGee said. “Yeah, but we’re risking our lives every day. We’re just here for our families. That’s the only reason.”
West Virginia coal miners earn an average of $55,000 a year, according to the state Coal Association. And the industry provides $3.5 billion to the gross state product of nearly $30 billion.
The culture of coal is deeply rooted in the state’s psyche — the state seal depicts a man with a pickax and a statue of a miner graces the state Capitol complex.
Upshur County in central West Virginia is a marginal producer in the nation’s second-leading coal producing state, ranking 18th of the 28 counties where coal is mined.
But there is hardly a person here who does not have a family member or friend who works in the damp, gassy, dusty seams beneath these spiny, tree-studded ridges that the mountain poet James Still called “these prisoning hills.”
At The Donut Shop in the county seat of Buckhannon, the sign outside read: “Prayers & Wishes for our miners & their families.” Throughout the night after the explosion, miners, retired miners and miners’ wives sat, their eyes glued to the television for the latest news, said waitress Debbie Drost.
“It’s on everybody’s mind,” she said. “This has just devastated us. That’s the only thing anybody is talking about.”
Despite its long mining history, accidents of this magnitude are not something residents of Upshur County have much experience with. The county hasn’t had a mining fatality since a roof fall killed one man in October 2003.
The explosion was the state’s deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men — including the uncle of Gov. Joe Manchin — died in an explosion at Consol’s Farmington No. 9 mine in Marion County, an hour’s drive north of here. Nineteen bodies remain entombed in the mountain.
It was that disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
Demand for workers
With the rising prices of oil and natural gas, Appalachian coal has been enjoying a mini-boom in recent years. Across the region, new mines have been opened and old mines have been reopened, but in Upshur County the state said there was one fewer mine in 2004 than the year before.
Yet, as the number of mines dropped, the number of coal jobs increased. The state records show about 490 people worked in the county’s mines in 2004.
At least two of the men trapped in the Sago mine were in their 20s with less than three years’ experience. Joel Cogar’s father works at the mine as a fire boss and has watched as about a half-dozen high school friends cast their lots with coal.
The 20-year-old opted for a job in the lumber department at the cavernous Lowe’s instead of the claustrophobic confines of a 5½-foot-high coal seam.
“I just found something I thought was safer,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like I was supposed to go.”
McGee, whose twin brother, Tim, is also a miner, said the notion of death is always there, but the miners try not to talk about it.
“You have to be cautious, but you don’t want to be overly cautious,” said McGee, who worked as a tree cutter before entering the Sago mine in 2000. “Because then you can’t do your job, and you’re putting everybody at risk.”
Sitting on a cold metal chair beneath a funeral home tent, a red-eyed Donald Marsh had kept an all-night vigil across the railroad tracks from the mine, waiting for word of his brother, Jim Bennett, and the other trapped miners.
Marsh, 65, works in a sawmill that supplies timber for the Sago mine. He never truly understood how his brother could stand to make his living underground, but he knows Jim’s rock-solid faith in God had to be part of it.
“He wouldn’t quit,” Marsh said, his calloused, stained worker’s hands folded in his lap. “Hell, he loves the mines.”