Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, in which 29 men died deep beneath the hills of West Virginia. As I type those words, I feel the heaviness of the phrase “mine disaster in West Virginia.”
There have been so many. Any writer or journalist who has been at it in the state for decades will likely at some point have covered one; the investigations resulting from one; or an historic remembrance of a long-ago mine disaster, that still reverberates in the lives of wounded families and communities.
The hard news and investigative reporters at the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail, where I worked for three decades, did the heavy lifting on mine disasters in my day. I tried to fill in some of the pieces from the feature section sidelines.
As I begin to archive some of my newspaper video work here at TheStoryIsTheThing.com, I’m re-posting one video (see below) that continues to resonate. It will resonate as long as the Upper Big Branch family members grieve, which will be a long time.
It will reverberate, as well, so long as a venal, deceitful Don Blankenship rubs salt into their wounds by continuing to disavow any responsibility or culpability for these deaths.
For the deaths occurred at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County, a company then led by Blankenship. ‘Misled’ is the better word. Massey Energy is no more, but Blankenship is still around and still won’t shut up.
In a Gazette-Mail story by Caity Coyne published yesterday—tellingly headlined with the quote “It always feels like just yesterday”—she quotes at length Gary Quarles, whose son, Gary Wayne Quarles, died at age 33 in the 2010 disaster.
Gary Wayne Quarles’ dad decided to speak up—and keep speaking up—from the frustrating, enraging experience of Upper Big Branch families attending post-disaster hearings, yet not being heard:
“To listen to the wives and mothers sitting behind you crying and not knowing not one thing about coal mining, and the federal government will not tell you nothing unless they’re put on the spot, well I’m sitting there and not going to let that take place,” Quarles told Coyne. “I sat there and I spoke out, I spoke out very loudly. I asked any question that left my mind. Any question, right or wrong. I wasn’t going to let them pull wool over no one’s eyes.”https://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/itll-always-feel-like-just-yesterday-10-years-later-families-friends-remember-miners-lost-at/article_258def95-bdbe-57e0-bef7-564ce0876938.html
After the disaster, Quarles—who spent three decades underground as a miner himself—spent countless hours, along with his wife, Patty, seeking justice for their son, Coyne writes. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, a wealthy man, spent millions of dollars fighting federal charges that his company’s avoidance and inaction on safety standards led to the explosion that killed their son and 28 other miners.
In the end, Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison, Coyne notes, convicted of a single misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate federal mine-safety laws at UBB. To this day, he insists his prosecution was unfair, but has not succeeded in attempts to get his conviction overturned. Each year when today’s grievous anniversary returns, Quarles told Coyne that he waits to see what Blankenship will say about the disaster:
“I just want him to stay quiet. If he could keep his mouth shut, I’d be a happy man,” Quarles said. “But every year he has something to say. It’s not his fault, he’s innocent, he says. But when he opens his mouth about [Upper Big Branch] I know he’s lying. Anyone who was there, who knows what went on in those mines, knows he’s lying.”
If there were justice, Blankenship would have had to spend that year in jail in a cell with a large video screen, playing the following video we posted in the weeks after the disaster.
NOTE: There is a lovely West Virginia connection to the video’s haunting soundtrack. The music is “Andante Quieto,” by the New Arts Trio from the CD “Harold Hayslett: A Musical Tribute.” Hayslett, who worked for 33 years as a Union Carbide pipefitter, took up instrument making as a side hobby while at Carbide. He ended up making 86 violins, 14 violas, 65 cellos, and one double bass. His instruments are now played by some of the world’s finest classical musicians, as well as bluegrass and old-time fiddlers. He died at age 100 in February 2018. All the music on the CD, engineered by Bob Webb, is performed on instruments made by Hayslett.
ADDENDUM 1: Here is some essential documentation by my friend and former colleague Ken Ward Jr. to understand the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in the context of political and corporate exploitation of West Virginia: https://www.documentcloud.org/…/2401616-mcateer-giip…
ADDENDUM 2: And here’s a post-trial story by Ken, where he puts the Blankenship case in the context of West Virginia’s complex relationship with coal: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/…/article_4784a5bd-3666…
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