Monday, April 12, 2010

688 Again, the Miners

688 Again, the Miners

At about ten o'clock one Friday morning, thousands of feet below ground, there was a spark. The spark set off a huge explosion of methane gas. Three hundred sixty two men and boys were killed. Their deaths left 250 widows and 1,000 fatherless children. It was and is the worst mine disaster in American history. It happened on a cold December day, the sixth day of the month, in Monongah, West Virginia in a mine owned by Consolidated Coal.

This wasn't last week or last month or last year or even last decade. It was in 1907.

And now, here we are, almost 103 years later. And a little more than 180 miles Southwest from Monongah, in Montcoal, 29 guys died of what probably will turn out to be an explosion of methane.

Statistically, this was a drop in the shaft. Three hundred sixty two then, 29 now. So, things have improved, statistically, from the worst. Look at the progress! A mere 29 guys. It could have been worse. A lot worse.

But still... 103 years and what? Ask Benny Willingham. Or Tommy Davis. Or Jason Atkins. No, don't bother. They're not here anymore. Or at least not in any condition to answer unless you can talk to the dead and they talk back. Benny and Tommy and Jason each made about $75,000 a year down in the depths. That's about $1400 a week before taxes. Not a terrible wage. In fact, it seems like a ton of money by today's standards. But Benny and Tommy and Jason aren't around to spend it. Oh, relatives will get some bucks, maybe even health insurance from either the company or the union.

You can't ask those three guys, but you CAN ask Cecil Roberts. Grey. Bearded. Slim. A pleasant southern drawl. He is president of the United Mine Workers Union. He is calm. He is disgusted. He says the coal companies put profits before safety. You can argue that he's paid to say stuff like that. And he is. But he wouldn't be where he is without believing it before he was paid.

Now, to the heart of the issue, the mechanics of safety.

It's unnecessary and ungainly to try to summarize technological advancements since 1907. But think about medical imaging, commercial and military flight, moon landings. Radio, television, the transistor, air conditioning and the computer on which you're reading this.

Mine safety? Ummmm. The body counts are getting lower. You can read the numbers here.

So is it that we can't do the job, or that we just haven't?

Get ready for the congressional hearings. Get ready for a head or two to roll in one of the many agencies overseeing all this. Get ready for the usual political grandstanding. Get ready for the wagons circled by the companies. It's all in the pipeline.

Will any of this do any good? History says "unlikely."

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

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