West Virginia Mine Disaster: Mourning in the Mountains

By Rose Marie Berger 04-07-2010

There was a lovely reflection in today's NYT by novelist Denise Giardina about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Denise spent some time with Sojourners community in the late '70s and early '80s when she was working on her first book, Storming Heaven. Since then she's gone on to write Unquiet Earth, Saints and Villains, and Emily's Ghost. Currently, Denise is the writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University. Below is an excerpt from her column:

Halfway through Saturday night's semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da'Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch news of a coal mine disaster.

On Tuesday, the headline in The Charleston Gazette read instead: Miners Dead, Missing in Raleigh Explosion. And we cried.

Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.

Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday's explosion.

It seems we can't escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of "man hours" lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.

We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.

Read the whole column here.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She's the author of the forthcoming book Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House, April 2010).

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