Heroes, victims, martyrs, fools: Americans don't know what to make of coal miners

And they don't much care until they die, writes novelist TAWNI O'DELL

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I ate breakfast with my friend Jeannie and her father just a few hours before he would die in a mine explosion along with two other men. I can remember sitting at the Formica-topped kitchen table, poking at my bowl of Lucky Charms, while I watched him consume a huge plate of pancakes, and sausage, and an entire pot of black coffee without uttering a single word. Then he drank a shot of whisky, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, patted Jeannie's head and stepped outside into the pre-dawn darkness to go work in another kind of darkness two miles beneath the frozen ground.

That particular day he forgot his lunch, and Jeannie and I got to ride along with her mom to drop it off at the mine on our way to school. By the time we arrived, a weak sun had begun to rise behind a thick layer of dirty clouds and we could make out the silhouettes of two dozen shivering, yawning miners waiting for the mantrip, stamping their heavy steel-toed safety shoes and blowing warm air into their cupped hands, watching the first spits of snow float into the shafts of yellow light given off by their helmets.

Jeannie ran the silver lunch pail to her dad and would never see him alive again.

Like the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where more than two dozen miners lost their lives last week, the mine where Jeannie's dad worked had been frequently cited over the years by state inspectors for safety violations, which were ignored by both the owner and the miners, as is usually the case.

Mining is a dangerous profession. There's no way to make a mine completely safe: These are the words owners have always used to excuse needless deaths and the words miners use to prepare for them. Same words. Same belief. Same industry. Very different men.

Forty years ago, a few men dying in a coal-mining accident didn't receive much attention outside the community where it occurred. Nowadays, a media circus ensues. Convoys of news vans arrive in these tiny, forgotten towns setting loose more reporters across the hillsides than there are residents.

In 2002, the entire nation held its breath and watched raptly as nine miners were rescued from the Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania, not far from my hometown. Four years later, 12 miners died in the Sago mine near Buckhannon, W.Va., and a year after that six miners and three rescue workers were killed in Utah in the Crandall Canyon cave-in. Now in the wake of this latest disaster in West Virginia, once again I'm watching the press struggle to figure out how to portray the principal players while everyone else tries to decide exactly how much sympathy the miners and their families deserve and how much blame should be placed on the owners.

Coal mining is an industry rife with mismanagement, corruption, greed and an almost blatant disregard for the safety, health and quality of life of its work force. Everyone knows this. Everyone has always known it. No one has ever cared enough to do anything about it because our need for fuel is greater than our collective conscience on this particular issue. Can we at least be honest about this much?

I can say this because I'm not a miner. Most miners won't say it out loud. They're the last ones to speak up for their rights. Not because they're stupid or afraid, but because they're proud. They're hard-working, hard-living, often hard-drinking men who have to deal with the constant physical threat of injury and death in their profession and also the constant mental stress of lay-offs and mine closings. They work at a job that receives attention and respect only when someone dies. They won't ask for help because they equate it with asking for pity. And who else is going to speak up for them and fight the good fight against men with incredible wealth and political clout?

Coal miners are not cute and helpless like baby seals. They're not entertaining like dolphins. There will never be celebrity-studded protests and fundraisers organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Miners. As a matter of fact, the animal rights groups in this country would have never allowed a crew of chipmunks with tiny tool belts to be sent into such an unsafe work environment.

Miners are also not particularly good candidates for PR ventures, for interviews or even for a reality TV show. They're not known for their movie star good looks or their exciting, emotionally charged social lives unless Wing Night at Sweetwater's or hanging out in a wood-paneled basement watching NFL highlights suddenly becomes something worth chronicling. They live in tight-knit, closed-off communities and have a profound distrust of outsiders.

Each time a new disaster puts miners in the news, the press tries to make them into heroes but they don't quite fit the bill. They don't march off to war or rush into burning buildings or rid our streets of crime. They don't swear an oath to protect and serve, and they won't have American flags draped over their coffins even though they do wear American flags on their helmets. We want to portray the way these men died as an act of heroism when, actually, it was just a really bad day at work.

If they can't be heroes then they must be victims of a terrible tragedy but as in the case of this latest mining disaster, all too often the tragedy was foreseeable and nothing was done to stop it. Labeling people who dare to point out unpleasant truths as traitors and embracing instead those who disregard problems and spout feel-good rhetoric is one of our great American pastimes, but it's a dangerous practice with long-term ill effects. It's what leads to kids graduating from high school without being able to read. It's how mines continue to operate with countless safety violations. It's how your sister ended up marrying that moron.

I'm a novelist; not an expert on coal mining. I'm not a politician with an agenda to push. I'm not a reporter presenting facts and I'm not a sociologist documenting the last struggling remnants of blue-collar America. I'm simply an author who sets her books in coal country because it's where I come from and it's what I know.

Each time a mining disaster occurs, my readers send me e-mails expressing bewilderment over the fact that the people and events in these news stories are just like the characters and occurrences in my books. They want to know how I'm able to portray real life before it happens. I tell them my novels aren't "based on true stories," but I do write about the truth.

I wish I could write these West Virginia miners to safety, but I'm afraid their stories have come to an end. In the future, as we try to decide if they were heroes, victims, martyrs or fools, I think we should also ask ourselves what type of character we played in this saga, keeping in mind that these men died so we can have four TVs in our houses instead of only one.

As for the families of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch mine, their stories go on. Most of the journalists will leave soon, the nationwide attention will pass, and they'll be left alone to delve into the next chapter of mourning in a coal town: the acceptance of the nightmare. After days spent praying that their men were still alive, now they must begin hoping that they died instantly.

Tawni O'Dell's latest novel, just published, is "Fragile Beast" ( www.tawniodell.com ). Her previous books include "Back Roads" and "Coal Run." "Back Roads" was an Oprah's Book Club-featured novel and a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection. She grew up in Indiana, Pa., and now lives in State College.


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