Community hopes tragedy will spur mine-safety action
PHILIPPI — When Philippi Mayor Doris Mundy gave birth to a son 48 years ago, her own father was in the same hospital: He had just had his back broken in a mine accident.
“They wheeled my dad out to see him,” Mundy remembered Thursday, the day after 12 miners — four of them from Mundy’s community — were declared dead after a mine explosion in nearby Tallmansville.
Mundy’s youngest son was born in November 1968, one day before 78 coal miners were killed in a mine explosion in Farmington, two counties away.
It took Farmington, one of the worst mine disasters of the century, to make the government crack down on unsafe coal mines. Mundy and others in this mourning town say they can only hope this week’s Sago Mine tragedy inspires today’s government officials to concentrate more on mine safety and rescue teams.
“It’s sad to say, but something good has to come from these tragedies,” Mundy said. “After Farmington, a lot of good laws came out of that.”
Both of those sons of Mundy’s went into the mines, like their father and grandfather before them — the eldest as a roof bolter, and the youngest as a state mine inspector.
“My oldest — I fear for his safety every day,” she said. He was injured in a rock fall, but “he keeps going back ... I think it does get in your blood.”
Several miners and their families said they wonder how many miners will decide never to go underground again.
“My son-in-law was scheduled to start in the mines on Tuesday,” Mundy said. “He woke up on Tuesday and changed his mind ... I’m so thankful he changed his mind.”
Scott Gillis, 27, stood bareheaded in the sleet on a downtown sidewalk watching county workers erect four white crosses on the courthouse lawn, one for each Barbour miner who died.
After a while, he spoke. “I had an interview at Sentinel,” another mine owned by International Coal Group, owner of the Sago Mine. “But I’m not going.”
‘Will he come home?’
Linda Watson said she “came to West Virginia crying, with my mother’s credit card in my pocket in case I really hated it and wanted to come home.” That was 1978. She had married a steel-mill worker in her Pennsylvania hometown, but the mill shut down and offered him a job in a coal mine it owned in West Virginia.
Nearly 30 years later, Watson is coordinator of the Barbour County Family Resource Network. She can’t think of anyplace she’d rather call home. And she now has the tough, pragmatic view of coal mining’s dangers that families in this mining community develop out of necessity.
“It’s a reality of coal mining,” she said simply.
Watson’s job now is to prepare for the needs of the grief-stricken. They are her family, friends and neighbors.
The county has had a lot of practice dealing with crises, she said, because it suffers constant devastating floods at the hands of the Tygart Valley River.
“At first, there will be little for community agencies to do, because there has been such an outpouring from the public,” she said.
“But we’re putting the supports in, to have everything ready to roll. Because the big government agencies are going to back out. The hoopla’s going to die down. The newspapers are going to stop covering it. There aren’t going to be any more interviews on TV. And we’re going to be left with a lot of very, very sad people.”
On Monday, for example, agencies are meeting to “get information into the classrooms for the kids,” Watson said. “We need to explain to our kids what happened.
“My own grandchildren didn’t know this could happen.” One is 14, one a few years younger. “My husband’s a coal miner. They’ve grown up with it, but they didn’t know. They’ve got an awareness now they didn’t have before — an awareness maybe we didn’t want them to have.
“A lot of families don’t want their men to go back.”
Bob Wilkins of the area ministerial association said, “There will be the stress of the spouse worrying now: ‘Will he come home?’”
Wilkins said Philippi, a close-knit town of 2,781, and the surrounding county already were grieving for two recent, unexpected deaths: a fireman killed two weeks ago in a freak auto accident, and the superintendent of schools’ young wife, who died of what everyone had thought was an easily treatable infection.
As he said at one point Thursday, finishing up a telephone call with a townsperson: “I don’t know how much more this community can take.”
To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.