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West Virginia Mine Tragedy

Mines' Call Is Deep Within

For some, yes, it's simply the only decent job they can get, but for others the work is in their veins. 'It's another world down there,' says one.

January 05, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Rick Price left the mines more than 20 years ago to pursue his call to the ministry. He's a pastor now in a little church in the mountains -- and he longs to go back underground.

There's something about mining that tugs at him. It's filthy, loud, exhausting work, and it's dangerous. Some coal seams are so shallow that miners spend their shift on hands and knees. Even in the deeper seams, where a short man like Price can stand upright in comfort, the air is dim and dusty, the sun's a mile distant, and the threat of an explosion or a cave-in lingers in the back of every mind.

"But I'll tell you," Price said. "Once you have deep mining in your blood, there's nothing else you'd rather do."

This region of sloping woods and mountain streams is in mourning for 12 miners fatally trapped underground by an explosion in the Sago Mine early Monday.

The little towns, with their faded one- and two-block downtowns, fly their flags at half-staff. The cafes are busy but quiet; there is deep sadness here in Buckhannon and across Upshur County.

But there is also frustration. Accounts of the tragedy, beamed across the world, portray mining as a last resort, the only decent job to be had in an impoverished, uneducated backwater.

That is true for some miners. They can earn upwards of $50,000 a year with just a high school diploma, or even without one; that goes a long way in a region where it's rare to find a house selling for above $100,000. Many miners do take the job solely for the money.

But for some, it becomes a passion.

There are quite a few proud-to-be-a-miner bumper stickers on the mud-splashed pickups that rumble through the winding roads of Upshur County (population 24,000).

Every morning, every night, thousands of miners change into work clothes, grab their hardhats and head lamps, clip on the identification tags that will identify them in case of disaster. Some hop an elevator that ferries them deep into the earth -- as deep as a 40-story building is tall. Others grab a seat on a man-trip, a flat car on rails that burrows miles into the mountain. The ride can last an hour.

Men change when they're that far underground; some become gruff or crude, but others gain an almost mellow calm. Price said he found an unexpected contentment in the single-minded focus on clawing coal from the earth, on finding the fuel that powers America.

"It's another world down there," said Price, 51.

He escaped several close calls, including a rockslide. Still, he said, "I've thought about going back ever since I left."

"It's competitive -- you pit yourself against the elements," said Charles Malcolm, who worked 22 years underground and then spent five years as a dispatcher at the Sago Mine.

The men (and a very few women) on the crews bond in their cramped quarters, coming to value one another for hard work and cooperation.

Malcolm describes his colleagues at the Sago Mine -- including several of the men who died -- as "100% American," by which he means that they're "family folks, caring folks, willing to lend a hand any time you need."

Mining also carries with it a strong element of tradition: It's a profession handed down from grandfather to father to son. "Most people know what they're getting into," said Terry Steele, 53, who spent a quarter-century in the mines before suffering a back injury.

Even before this tragedy, however, many miners had figured that tradition would end with them: They did not advise their sons to go underground.

Growing awareness of disabling conditions such as black lung, from breathing coal dust, played a role. But so did the fact that coal prices were slumping and mines were closing all across Appalachia.

"We lost an entire generation" of recruits, said Bill K. Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Assn.

According to the U.S. census, Upshur County reported about 1,000 mining-related jobs in 2004 -- one out of every eight jobs. Residents inclined to retail work can apply at the Wal-Mart in Buckhannon; there are also several factories in the area, and emerging industrial parks. The timber industry continues to be an economic mainstay.

Upshur County has experienced a construction boom of late, with several new housing developments underway in towns of a few hundred to a few thousand. The diversifying economy has forced some mining companies to woo new hires with signing bonuses and benefits such as free health insurance. The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced $6 million in grants to attract more miners in Kentucky and West Virginia. That money will be used to build "coal academies" to train workers on the high-tech machines used in modern mines.

The tragedy at the Sago Mine might not help recruiting.

But in this quiet, unpretentious town -- where hand-lettered signs urge prayer for the miners -- residents expect the underground coal seams to remain a vital part of who they are for generations.

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