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The Day After

April 6, 2010

Featured Article, Words

As I leave work yesterday, the ‘chop-chop-chop’ of a medical helicopter churns the air above the city, heading to the landing pad atop Charleston Area Medical Center. I wonder if it’s the first evacuation from that afternoon’s mine disaster, 30 miles south of the city in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Later that night, while watching “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the face of my Charleston Gazette colleague, Ken Ward Jr., comes on the screen. Rachel interviews him via phone on the latest news about the developing tragedy – 7 dead so far, more than 20 missing at the Upper Big Branch mine. My wife and I go to bed soon after. I awake sometime around 3 a.m., mind tossing and turning. The news is even worse by morning – 25 confirmed dead at the Massey mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

As a writer about culture and the arts and a multimedia producer, there’s not much I can do at the moment as the story unfolds, except wrestle along with everyone else with images of men trapped beneath tons of stone, families in torment above ground. And beam them prayers, if that’s your practice, or loving-kindness meditation, which is mine.  So, I try that in the depth of the night, two tan candle lights dispelling the darkness. The only thoughts that come clear are how important it is that newspapers with cojones, like the Gazette, must survive to follow and investigate such tragedies. A hundred superficial bloggers pontificating and opining are not worth one implacable investigative reporter like Ken, along with the rest of the Gazette staff, in getting the news out about what happened and why in the weeks and months to come. (One of the few essential blogs in West Virginia, and nationwide when it comes to coal and energy issues, is his Coal Tattoo blog, where you can be sure to find the most up-to-date developments on this tragedy.)

There is the urge, too, to rush to judgment and find yet another reason to pillory the divisive Massey chairman and CEO Don Blankenship. But it is far too soon to pin responsibility anywhere. That will come soon enough. And for all Blankenship’s anti-global warming claptrap and pitbull aggression on behalf of profits uber alles, the thousands of Massey miners in his employ are people just trying to make a good living in a profession with this deadly dark side to it.  But as the story unfolds, that’s where the rest of us come in, those of us who are not investigative reporters, in clamoring for oversight and accountability. For too much of its history, West Virginia and Appalachia have been a national sacrifice zone,” in (if I recall correctly) Harry Caudill’s memorable phrase from “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” If there’s any place state and national government should be well-funded, ably staffed and empowered to poke its nose around it’s the coal mine industry. There has been enough sacrifice.

PHOTO ABOVE | View of the tipple near the scene of a mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., on Monday April 5, 2010.  (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

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3 Responses to “The Day After”

  1. Gary Reynolds Says:

    Doug, you’ve said it all, and perfectly. Thank you.

  2. admin Says:

    Well, I think we can start the process of beginning to apportion some blame here: http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201004060666

  3. Karen Stuebing Says:

    It’s hard to believe this could happen again after the Sago Mine disaster.

    Coal mining is always going to be part of West Virginia’s economy. It is always going to be a dangerous job and people will die, if not from roof cave ins, methane gas then eventually from the health issues like black lung. Coal miners choose their job and most like it.

    However, disasters like this are preventable. MTR is an atrocity that must be stopped. Even die hard underground miners agree with that.

    And IMO, it is time for West Virginia to diversify it’s economy and rely less on coal and more on other new clean industries. Where’s the vision, Joe?