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A Coal Miner's Last Words Resonate Still

By       Message Don Williams     Permalink
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Inhale, exhale.
Thick fingers work a pencil.
Powell Harmon is writing and dying.

In catacombs lit by sputtering lamps beneath a mountain whose outer air and bright lushness he already misses, along with all else he's ever loved or despised on this green earth, he scrawls his deepest desires in broken script.

He tells his wife and boys to love Jesus so they can meet again in heaven. Then, panting in dank, toxic air, sets down last words....

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"My boys, never work in the mines."
Later he gasps. Once. Then he sighs away everything he ever was....

Hours after his death on May 19, 1902, those who retrieve his body from the Fraterville, Tennessee mine near Coal Creek, now known as Lake City, also bring out his last words.

Over a century later, Harmon's advice resonates still. (

As this is written, six miners remain lost deep under the earth at Huntington, Utah. Three rescuers are dead and several are in the hospital, victims of what's known in the understated language of miners as a "bump." That's when a column of coal--left in place to support the mine's dug out ceiling--succumbs to unimaginable downward pressure and blows outward.

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Maybe such a bump precipitated the Utah mine's collapse. It's a point of contention. Already owners of Murray Energy Corporation have become targets of critics.

America's Mine Safety Czar Richard Stickler will face punishing questions too, no doubt, for he's one in a long line of political cronies of questionable worth appointed by George W. Bush, and the buck stops with him.

Even before 9/11, Bush's arrogant tactic of appointing foxes to run henhouses alienated many of us. Yes that figure of speech diminishes what's at stake, but nothing else says it so succinctly.

Bush has placed energy and arms merchants in charge of foreign policy, lumber executives in charge of forests, polluters in charge of the EPA, a yes-man in charge of justice, and he named Stickler--a former mine executive with a flawed safety record--to be Mine Safety Czar.

Twice Stickler was rejected by a Republican controlled Senate, so Bush used a loophole in the Constitution to appoint him during a Congressional recess in October, 2006.


The appointment came in the wake of the Sago, West Virginia mine disaster in January 2006. I wrote a column then about how one of the men killed there told loved ones years earlier he expected to die in the mines.

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Doubtlessly, many in states like Tennessee have known that sense of doom, for ours is a land more storied than most in mining lore. The Fraterville Mine Disaster of 1902 was the worst in the history of the United States at the time, claiming more than 200 lives.

Less than a decade later, on Dec. 9, 1911, the adjoining Cross Mountain Mine, at Briceville, blew, killing 84 more.

My grandfather, C.I. Williams, helped bring the bodies out. His voice used to bring chills to my skin relating how every house along the tracks through the mountain town rang with cries of widowed women and orphaned children as he walked to the mine's crowded mouth to do his part in the grim business.

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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer, freelancer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the (more...)

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