At 4:30 p.m. on Monday, April 5, my brother called to tell me that the Massey Upper Big Branch mine had exploded near Montcoal. He is a member of a mine rescue team, and he told me they thought 28 men were lost. I immediately got on the phone to find out if our friends down home had any more information. I could hear the sirens’ constant wailing in the background. The sign of a disaster in the mines. And my brother was on his way down deep underground.
I grew up in West Virginia and for the past nine years have been filming documentaries about the region. I knew exactly where the explosion had happened. The last time I was there filming with our crew, we had a shotgun pulled on us. It was their way of telling us we were not welcome.
I long had heard horror stories about Massey Energy Co. and its chief executive officer, Don Blankenship. Community activists in our films have been fighting with Massey for years. They have conducted hunger strikes at the West Virginia state capital. They have picketed the state Department of Environmental Protection. They even sat in trees and were convicted of trespassing as they tried in desperation to bring attention to Massey’s treatment of them, their land and their communities.
A man named Ed Wiley walked 40 days from the coal fields to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to Massey operations at Marsh Fork. When nothing happened, he paid his way to New York City and stood, for weeks, in front of the NBC Today show with a sign. But no one heard their voices.
I went back down to the Coal River valley this past weekend. It was not the same place. Mine workers, United Mine Workers members, Department of Environmental Protection workers now sought us out to vent their pain and anger. They wanted someone to hear their story — just not on camera.
There is fear in the Coal River valley. This time it’s not only fear of intimidation or losing the only job in town if they speak out against Massey. Now, it is also fear that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor will let Massey get away with murder.
At the Marsh Fork vigil on Saturday night, I was stunned to see the AFL-CIO and United Mine Workers members scheduled to speak. Massey is well known and proud of its history of union-busting. It has effectively now eliminated the once omnipresent United Mine Workers.
When Clyde McKnight, Jr, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference West Virginia AFL-CIO and a coal miner, spoke to his ”brothers,” his voice broke as he said the Miner’s Creed. When he raised his lighted candle to heaven, everyone in the crowd joined him.
Another speaker opened with the famous quote from the ”miner’s angel” Mother Jones: ”Pray for the perished and fight like hell for the living.”
For all the blood shed by miners, perhaps none changed the world more than the miners who fought at the first Coal Wars in towns like Matewan and Blair Mountain and formed the United Mine Workers of America. But many here don’t even know they might still be paid in ”scrip” (credit at the company store) and working 12-hour days if not for the United Mine Workers. They are ”members” of Massey Energy and wear their identifiable Massey orange stripes with pride. This is a cult of personality and Don Blankenship has been its ringmaster.
After church at Pastor Gary Williams’ church, we saw a hand-made sign on the local United Mine Workers building. After Saturday night, I was expecting all kinds of people would be there. Five union members came. Several knew the men who were killed. One of them had been their softball coach. They were angry at Massey, angry at the violations that may have contributed to their deaths. They told us the horror stories about how line curtains were routinely taken down and other systematic violations, but not one of them would go on camera because ”Massey is always watching us.”
We met many of the media who came from New York City and Washington to cover the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Without fail, they said they had never met such nice people. I hope they never forget them because the world needs to see what is happening to them.
Those nice people live in a community where Massey not only has the worst mine disaster since 1970, but a massive mountain top removal mine site (for tourists, that is why the mountains are now gone in these communities) and a 2.8-billion gallon slurry dam, 600 feet above the elementary school. Most of those nice people are just worried about whether they will survive Massey Energy and Don Blankenship.
We as West Virginians have a sentimentality toward our land, the place we came from and where we belong. Those mountains ring with the siren call of our ancestors. It is powerful stuff. And I promise that, like Mother Jones, I, too, will mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.