“For my place will cave in, and my life I will lose”
APRIL 23 2010, MONTCOAL, W.Va. — A huge underground explosion blamed on methane gas killed 25 coal miners in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.
When I saw the headline and read the story this morning, I thought first of the families and second about the music. And specifically the American songbooks that were created around the plight of the coal miners back in the twenties and thirties. The title of this post is taken from A.P. Carter’s collection, and is called “Coal Miner’s Blues”.
Four others were missing Tuesday, their chances of survival dimming as rescuers were held back by poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.’s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.
From the late 1800s through today the coal mining industry has had a long history of poor working conditions in both economics and safety. The United Mine Workers of America began to unionize workers in 1890 and over the next thirty some odd years there was history of violent confrontations and atrocities on both sides. And these events were chronicled in songs, and there are no shortage of collections available.
The mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston, has a significant history of safety violations, including 57 infractions just last month for (among other things) not properly ventilating the highly combustible methane.
“Daddy, please don’t go down in that hole today,
For my dreams do come true some time, you know.
Oh, don’t leave me, daddy, please don’t go away,
Something bad sure will happen, do not go.”
From “Explosion in the Fairmount Mines” Blind Alfred Reed 1927
The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company. They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them. Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy
“Poor hard working miners, their troubles are great,
So often while mining they meet their sad fate.
Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell,
Their mining’s all over, poor miners farewell!”
From “Poor Miner’s Farewell” Aunt Molly Jackson 1932
The nation’s sixth biggest mining company by production, Massey Energy took in $24 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2009. The company paid what was then the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry for the 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia. The fire trapped 12 miners. Two suffocated as they looked for a way to escape. Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports.
I hate the company bosses,
I’ll tell you the reason why:
They cause me so much suffering
And my dearest friends to die.
Well, what can I do about it
To these men of power an’ might?
I tell you company bosses
I’m goin’ to fight, fight, fight.
What can we do about it
To right this dreadful wrong?
We’re all goin’ to join the union,
For the union makes us strong.
From “I Hate the Company Bosses” Sarah Ogan Gunning 1930s
It had already been a long day for grieving relatives, some angry because they found out their loved ones were among the dead from government officials or a company Web site, not from Massey Energy executives.
“We appeal to ev’ry statesman to uphold our nation’s name,
And to crush within our borders now, a mighty nation’s shame;
When the workers are protected then our nation grows in fame,
And freedom’s crowned for aye.”
From “Our Cause Is Marching On” Davie Robb 1913
“They’re supposed to be a big company,” said Michelle McKinney, whose father, 62-year-old Benny R. Willingham, died in the blast. She found out from a local official at a school near the mine. “These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn’t even call us.”
Oh, to those who know no better, and the ones who do not care,
I’ll take this means of telling you what a miner has to bear.
So when your servant fires the furnace and the smoke and blazes roll,
Just stop, and think who suffered for that little lump of coal.
From That Little Lump of Coal” J.N. York 1936
By the end of the day I’m sure there will be politicians calling for hearings on the why this tragedy occurred. Those on the right will blame the liberals and the unions, and those on the left will call for more green energy options.
And twenty five families will lay awake and grieve.