West Virginia families see the dangers of coal mining

Bobby Gray was beat. He’d just worked the nine-hour overnight shift at a coal mine on Seng Creek on Wednesday, and he was due back at 4 p.m.

But at least he was alive and safe.

“Thank God,” said his wife, Michelle. “I worry every time he goes down in that mine that he won’t come home at the end of his shift.”

Three days after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 25 miners, dozens of other mines along the Big Coal River are still running, still sending men deep into the earth to scratch out a living.

The deaths of their friends and neighbors stunned other miners here, but it didn’t keep them out of the mines. Coal families fear the mines and often resent mine operators, but they know what pays the bills.

“There’s nothing else around here,” said Gray, scratching his bare belly and sucking on a Marlboro after napping between shifts. “If I didn’t have this job, we’d be living in a trailer.”

Gray, 38, a third-generation miner, worked at the Upper Big Branch mine before the operator, Massey Energy Co., transferred him to another Massey-owned mine. He earns $28 an hour as a shuttle car operator.

“If he’d stayed, he’d have been with that crew that died,” his wife said.

Gray shrugged. He said he had been glad to leave Upper Big Branch, which he called a “gassy mine.”

“You could hear the methane coming up out of the ground. You could see it bubbling in the water,” he said. “Everybody figured that sooner or later that gas would be a killer.”

The Grays know several of the miners listed as dead or unaccounted for at the Upper Big Branch mine. In the hollows and creek beds along Route 3, everybody has heard the stories of the missing and the dead.

They’ve heard how Ramona Williams, in her double-wide mobile home on White Oak Creek Hollow, is praying that her brother, miner Ronald Maynor, is among the unaccounted for and not among the dead.

They’ve heard how Benny R. Willingham, 62, died in the explosion just a month before he planned to retire and take a 10-day cruise with his wife, who is now a widow.

Mining families often speak of calamity as inevitable, and they face it with stoicism. Even on a bright, warm day, with blooming redbud trees decorating the gray hills with bursts of purple, miners were tense about entering the damp darkness below.

“It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time before things go bad again,” Gray said. He pointed to an ugly scar on his right arm left by a falling rock inside a mine.

His wife squeezed his hand and said, “Everybody’s so scared and upset. It’s a nightmare.”

A few miles down the river, Jerry Bearfield has begged his son not to return to his job at the stricken mine when it reopens after a lengthy disaster investigation. Bearfield’s son, John Clemons, finished his shift at the mine just six hours before the explosion Monday.

“That mine’s not safe, and I told him so. Massey has a spotty safety record,” Bearfield said. “But my boy came home Monday and just looked at me and shook his head and said, ‘I’m going back.’ ”

Bearfield said his father died of black lung disease after working local coal mines for 40 years. He refused to follow him, working instead as a mechanic.

“You couldn’t pay me enough money to go down in one of those mines,” Bearfield said.

Clemons’ wife, Miranda, said she was resigned to her husband’s return to mining. With the mine shut down and no paycheck coming in, she worries about feeding their two young children.

“It’s the best job you can get around here -- it’s all we know,” she said. “So I just give him an extra hug and pray to God he comes back to me.”

Some mining families have complained that Massey is requiring miners to continue working other mines despite Monday’s tragedy, said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va).

“There’s trepidation and stress -- and then they’re asked to go back to work,” Rahall said.

The Upper Big Branch mine was shut down temporarily for safety violations 29 times last year, said Kevin Stricklin, a federal mine safety inspector. Massey was cited for 515 violations at the mine in 2009 and 124 so far this year.

Bobby Gray would prefer to work at a union mine. “They have safety reps doing what they’re supposed to do to keep you safe,” he said.

But at 4 p.m., he intended to head off to the night shift at the mine on Seng Creek.

“I need the work,” he said.