MY GRANDFATHER was a coal miner in Hazelton, Pa. Over his bed was a colored print, which all the mining families in town had bought from the same peddler, of angels bending over the Blessed Mother's death bed. The bed was luxurious, with linens softer and plumper than any in his poor house, and the death more peaceful than the one he expected: in a mine cave-in, with his head cracked open by a piece of anthracite.
But because it was the heyday of industrial unions, government had forced the mining companies to implement some basic safety measures, and when he was caught in a cave-in in the 1950s, my grandfather lived, losing only an eye.
Over the last 100 years, more than 100,000 miners have died pulling coal out of the earth. If you think, as I do, that after every disaster there is an opportunity to make things right, it's amazing that in 2006 we nearly saw a mine tragedy unfold again. Late Tuesday, 12 of 13 miners trapped in a West Virginia coal shaft were saved. But why did it have to come to that?
No doubt there will be an investigation, which will show that the mine accident wouldn't have occurred if certain safety measures had been implemented. But, we'll learn, the regulatory offices that enforce those measures are old and toothless, and the unions are weaker than ever. Everyone will wring their hands a bit, but after a couple of mea culpas, it will be business as usual.