My father worked in a Pennsylvania coal mine when he was in high school. My grandfather expected his son to be a coal miner for the rest of his life. But, my grandmother told him to run away from home rather than stay in Shenandoah Pennsylvania where his only fate was to be a coal miner. "Leave home Jack", she told him. So, at 19 years old, he did.
My father ran away to become a hobo hitch hiker during the Depression, living in box car trains until he wound up in California. Once settled in California, he took advantage of free education to become a master electrician. Still flat broke, he helped business people to rig their electricity around the meter box so they could cheat the electric company for free service. He earned $100 cash rigging these wires. It was enough cash to buy a train ticket back home to Pennsylvania without hitch hiking. He never worked in the coal mine again, thanks to his mother's advice. Instead, he became an electrician at the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel Plant in Maryland.
Mine disasters are tragic. Stories of personal loss about people who cannot run away from home are tear wrenching. Compounding the tragedies are the media glitches the management of these mine fiascoes cause. Mining bosses won't face up to their shortcomings by preventing methane gas explosions. It appears the Massey mine was riddled with safety violations, but media reports say is was cheaper for the company to pay $168,000 a year in violation fines rather than pay to fix the problems.
Mining families are faithful to their communities knowing every day the risk their family members take when they enter work in the coal mining industry. Even the few miners who manage to run away from home rather than work in the mines find their earning potential outside of mining is limited. Mining pays good wages for those willing to work in such a high risk occupation.
Coal miners know their risk of death or disability is increased compared to other occupations. Nonetheless, miners and their families cannot assess how unscrupulous the mining management can be when it comes to minimizing the risk of death by methane gas explosion.
It seems the safety risks in coal mining are something the miners are willing to take. What they don't deserve is unscrupulous management of the mines for the sake of profit. Does it seem strange to see West Virginia's Governor Joe Manchin speaking to television media about how the rescue efforts are progressing for the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine accident? Governor Manchin has been a compassionate media voice to explain this mine tragedy. Mining management, on the other hand, has not appeared to been so available.
Rather than face the cameras, Massey CEO Don Blankenship has used social media sites such as Twitter.com to communicate about the disaster. He isn't seen on television.
"Pray for the families and the rescue workers," he tweeted. "First thing that comes to mind is the dignity, compassion, understanding, and expressions of the miners' families."
What about safety?
Perhaps it's time for coal miners to go on strike until stricter safety measures are enforced and violation fines are meaningfully implemented.
Indeed, my grandmother spoke for every mining mother and wife when she said, "Leave home, Jack".
Names of some victims of the Upper Coal Branch mine methane gas explosion reported in the media:
Steven J. Harrah
Benny Ray Willingham
Carl "Pee Wee" Acord
Deward Allen Scott
William R. Lynch
Timmy Davis Jr.
Howard "Boone" Payne