'We found love -- 5 miles underground'
OAK HILL, W.Va. -- Boone Payne always called home at a little past 5 p.m., when he finally picked up a cell signal on the trip back from another day at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
Last April 5, Bobbie Pauley was cooking his dinner, and the time for his phone call came and went. She assumed they were running good coal, and Boone had just worked past his normal quitting time.
When her phone finally rang just before 6 p.m., it wasn't Boone but another miner.
"Something's happened at the mine," the miner told her. "It's either a fire on the belt line or an explosion underground."
"I thought, 'Oh my God,'" she said. "'Did Boone make it out?'"
Pauley jumped in her car and rushed from Boone Payne's house in Cabin Creek to the mine near Montcoal, in Raleigh County.
She knew the route well. She worked at Upper Big Branch, too. She was an underground miner, the same as he was. She ran continuous-mining machines, scoops and shuttle cars.
Upper Big Branch was where they met, where their love blossomed, and where their life together was ripped apart.
On many days, their mantrips would pass each other as she was going into the mine and he was coming out.
He would flag down her car, and pull aside the vehicle's safety net, his face black with coal dust.
"He'd always say, 'How's my girl?' Then he'd tell me about the mine, what the conditions were," Pauley said.
Payne was an experienced roof bolter who started mining in 1977. For at least the last 12 years of his life, his job was to secure the mine ceiling with long metal rods to prevent collapse. He'd always figure out the areas where Pauley would be working and let her know he'd put in a few extra bolts, just to be safe.
An untold number of West Virginians lost loved ones -- husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and friends -- in the April 5, 2010, explosion the Upper Big Branch Mine. The emotional toll of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years runs deep, especially as the one-year anniversary approaches.
The obituary for Howard Daniel "Boone" Payne, 53, listed more than two dozen survivors. He left behind two adult children, Jason Payne and Erica Stanley, as well as an aging father, two sisters, eight grandchildren and a handful of nieces and nephews.
In the flurry of media coverage following the disaster, though, Bobbie Pauley's story -- the tale of a rare female coal miner who'd lost her co-worker and lover -- went untold.
"We found love in a cold, dark mine -- 5 miles underground," Pauley said recently.
Pauley said she decided to tell her story to honor Boone Payne's memory, and so people will understand how the mine explosion affected so many lives.
"I want to make sure that he is seen for the beautiful, loving person that he was," she said in an email message. "He meant the world to me, and I want that conveyed with dignity and respect to him."
'Hardest work I've ever done'
In December 2006, Pauley and her teenage son, Dakota, moved from Florida back to her native West Virginia. She had left her job doing promotions for a NASCAR sponsor. She thought, with her work experience, she'd have no a problem finding a good job.
The best offer she got was making $7.50 an hour.
Mining was in her blood, though. Her grandfather was a miner and her father worked above ground on coal barges.
"I always tell people I didn't choose coal mining, it chose me," she said.
Pauley took classes to get certified, first as a surface miner, then as an underground miner.
Her first job was as a contractor at a Peabody mine. Part of the roof had collapsed, and the area was no longer being mined, but was used to vent the rest of the mine. Pauley and 18 other contract workers crawled on their hands and knees into the collapsed area, dragging heavy jacks to prop up the roof.
"It was the hardest work I've ever done," she said.
By the time the job was done, most of the men she'd started with had quit; just she and two men worked through to the end.
"I thought long and hard about mining," she said, "but in the end, I wanted my son to have. I didn't want him to go without."
'He was such a sweet man to me'
When Pauley started working at Upper Big Branch in January 2008, she wasn't looking for a boyfriend.
"I told everyone I already had a boyfriend," she said, "just because I didn't want to fool with it."
She and Boone Payne worked different shifts much of the time, rarely saw each other. When they did, Pauley first thought he was brash and brazen. She was scared of him.
"Boone was very loud. No, I won't say loud, I'll say verbal," Pauley said. "He had very colorful language and he didn't care who you were. . . . I thought he would be one of those guys that think women don't belong in coal mining.
"But the things that scared me about him at first are what attracted me to him," she said. "And he was such a sweet man to me."
One day, the two ended up working in the same section of the mine, and Pauley realized he wasn't as scary as he at first seemed.
"We were just laughing, cutting up," she said.
The two became friends, and started talking on the phone.
"I developed a crush on him," she said, "but I didn't want him to know."
Eventually, Payne asked her out.
On their first date, they were supposed to go out, but ended up spending the whole time in Payne's kitchen, talking about coal mining.
"I knew a side of him the coal mine didn't know," Pauley said. "At the mine, he was so strong-willed and outspoken, but with me, he was the most romantic, the most gentle person."
In 2006, before he met Pauley, Payne lost his fiancee in a motorcycle accident not far from his house. The two had dated for about a decade.
A few months later, he lost his mother to cancer.
"He lost the two women most important in his life," said Payne's sister, Shirley Whitt.
When he started bringing Bobbie Pauley around, Whitt says she played the role of questioning older sister.
"I asked 'how serious is this thing? Are you gonna marry this girl?'" Whitt recalled. "He said he was never going to marry again."
Payne had been married twice and been through two divorces. He told Pauley he wouldn't marry again. As time went on, though, the two started talking about marriage. Pauley said he eventually proposed, and bought her an engagement ring.
'This sounds like a man conversation'
Pauley said she understood from the beginning that being a miner meant being in a man's world and that she would have to adjust to that. There was only one other female miner at Upper Big Branch, she said.
Nationally, women make up just 6 percent of the nation's 88,000 coal miners, according to the National Mining Association. Female miners are far more common at surface mines in the western United States and at some underground operations in Alabama, said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.
There were times when men would say things that made her uncomfortable, Pauley said. "I'd tell them this sounds like a man conversation, and then I'd go somewhere else for a while and come back."
Early on, a co-worker told her he didn't think women should be coal miners.
"Thank you for your unsolicited opinion," she said she told the man, "but I'm here and I'm not leaving."
The man eventually accepted her, she said.
After Pauley and Payne started dating, a young miner made a lewd comment to Bobbie on the way into the mine. When Payne stopped their mantrip, he could tell something was wrong.
Later, the mine's management found out about what was said and suspended the miner. After he argued about his suspension to the mine manager, he was fired.
"I didn't want the boy to be fired," Pauley said.
Payne was not quite as forgiving.
The next time he stopped her mantrip, he made sure everyone knew not to harass Pauley.
"He called out the whole mantrip," she said.
The guys didn't talk to her for a week, but she says she didn't have any problems after that.
'I was hoping you'd say that'
On April 4, Easter Sunday, the couple had a rare day off together. Payne asked Pauley if she wanted to go out to dinner or for a drive.
She asked him if they had to do anything.
"I said 'I just want to spend the day together. Can we just stay home and just spend time together? We never get to spend time together,'" Pauley told him.
"I was hoping you'd say that," he said.
The next morning, Payne left early for work. He never came back.
When the vigil started outside Upper Big Branch, Boone's father, Harold Payne Sr., spent the week with Pauley, Whitt and other family members.
"It was rough," said Payne, who Bobbie and Boone called Cecil. "We were all like a family, all the miners' families up there."
Cecil Payne spent 38 years as an underground coal miner, and he was less than thrilled when his son decided to follow in his footsteps.
"I tried to talk him out of it. He said, 'No.'" Cecil Payne said. "He wanted to work in the mines. So, I got him his first coal-mining job."
After the first day of waiting for word on the post-explosion rescue efforts, Pauley drove back to Boone Payne's house to get a change of clothes and a shower. She found a note he had left when he went to work.
When Pauley read the note, she cried and cried. It wouldn't be until Friday of that week that she found out that the man she loved, along with 28 others, had died in the explosion.
Pauley continued to work for a while in the office at Upper Big Branch, helping track gas monitoring to see if the mine was safe for investigators to enter. Later, she was transferred to a nearby Massey operation, the Parker Peerless Mine. She's had to move back to her own house in Fayette County.
Over the past year, she's started to think of the note almost as a goodbye letter, as Payne's way of showing her how much she meant to him, one last time.
"I want you to know that you are my baby and you are my rock," he wrote in the letter. "And I love you so much and always will."