Miner mourns lost brother, friends

Lawrence Pierce
Clay Mullins talks about his brother, Rex, outside his house near Pax. Clay used to work at the Upper Big Branch mine with his brother and the 28 other miners who died in the April 5 disaster.

PAX, W.Va. -- Clay Mullins' body tells the tale of a life in the West Virginia coal mines.

A piece of metal once scraped the skin from his index finger while deep underground. The discolored area on his upper arm is from doctors taking a piece of skin to graft onto the finger.

A deep scar on his right leg runs from his shin to above the knee. He got it as a young miner in 1979, when part of a wall collapsed and trapped him.

While working on a mine roof, he heard a popping sound as he tried to bend a roof bolt. It was the sound of two discs in his back rupturing. After two surgeries, he rehabbed, got back into shape and went back to work in the mines.

But Clay hasn't worked in the mines since April 5. That's the day Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 men.

Clay, 52, worked at Upper Big Branch, before taking another mining job. He knew all but two of the men who died that day. One of them was his 50-year-old brother, Rex.

It's the emotional, rather than the physical scars that keep him from going underground.

"I'm afraid we'd have methane and I'd panic or not be an asset, not be able to help," he said recently. "I just can't do it. I've came back from injuries and a lot of stuff, but nothing compares to this."

Since the disaster, Mullins has been one of the most vocal family members at meetings with investigation officials, peppering them with pointed questions about where the explosion occurred and how it happened.

He says that he and miner Gary Quarles, father of fallen miner Gary Quarles Jr., ask many of the questions because they've been miners and know what questions to ask.

Mullins puts much of the blame on Massey Energy Co., but believes state and federal officials also have to shoulder some of the responsibility.

"I think they're not answering a lot of questions because Massey's stand on the explosion is that MSHA [the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration] made them run a ventilation plan they didn't want to run," he said.

"Massey can't blame that on MSHA. It's any mine operator's job to provide a safe workplace. It's MSHA and the state's job to enforce and to make sure the plan meets the safety requirements."

Guilty for leaving

Mullins left his friends and brother behind at Upper Big Branch and took another mining job about three years before the disaster.

Rex told his brother that things went downhill at the mine after he left.

Upper Big Branch always had a lot of methane, Clay said. When he was there, Clay said, the mine also had a lot of older, experienced supervisors who knew how to handle it. Rex told him that when those supervisors started to retire, the replacements didn't have the experience the job deserved.

"I tried to get my brother and my best friends to go with me," Mullins said. "I think my brother would have came if he didn't have the injury on his arm."

Rex Mullins was working as the mine utility man, driving a scoop to get more supplies when he ran over a water line and the pipe whipped up and pinned him by the arm, severing his bicep. He had limited use of the arm and couldn't do much heavy lifting.

After that, Rex's job at Upper Big Branch was along the belt line, away from the longwall. The job didn't require much lifting and Rex knew that if he went to another company, he'd not get the same job.

Clay also tried to persuade Gary Quarles to go with him. He'd helped train Quarles when he started out on the crew, and the two had worked together for a number of years. He said he thought of the younger man like a son.

"They'd still be here today," he said, "but they'd feel guilty for leaving -- like me."

Too many funerals

Clay rushed to the mine site with his brother, Yancy, and Rex's son, Jason, soon after the explosion.

He spent much of the next week there.

"All the families, we made a bond. We shared in each other's grief and consoled each other. It was a bad time, and [being together] brought out a good feeling."

When the news finally came that Friday that all the men had died, Clay was overwhelmed.

"It destroyed my life. One minute they were there, the next they were all gone," he said. "I felt like I let them all down, that I wasn't there to help. But had I been there, I couldn't have been able to help."

Working in a mine means you spend more time with the men on your crew than your own family, Clay said.

"I lost my biological brother and I lost 28 other brothers," he said.

Clay said he tried to go to as many of the funerals as he could, but, eventually, he had to stop.

"It just got to a point where I couldn't go anymore," he said. "I didn't want to hear it. You want to hear, but you don't want to hear."

Clay knew a lot of the Massey officials, and one called soon after the disaster and asked if there was anything the family needed.

"I told them Rex had bought the metal for his roof and it would be a big help to have it put up," Clay said. "They came to the house and put it up. But a lot of things have changed since then.  . . .  I don't support Massey like I did, since all this stuff with the violations has come out."

'He's not there'

About a week after the family learned that Rex and the other miners had died, Clay was at Rex's home with his widow, Brenda, when he said Massey Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins and his secretary paid a visit.

He brought with him a settlement proposal.

"He said their lawyers had come up with a $2 million compensation figure. [But Adkins] said, 'We said no, no, that's not enough. We're going to give them $3 million,'" Clay recalled. "He advised she put it in the bank and just live off of the interest."

Clay said he sat there thinking that it was awful fast, a week after the disaster, to be offering a settlement.

"They didn't even give the families time to mourn. They didn't give them time to find out what happened.  . . . Nobody was in their right mind at that point."

Since then, Rex's widow has agreed to a settlement with Massey -- a move that Clay didn't support. He wanted to first find out who is at fault.

A few weeks after the disaster, Rex's daughter, Geneva, found out she was going to have a baby.

"Rex will never see his grandchild," Clay said. "He didn't even know he had a grandchild on the way."

Clay said his brother lived a little bit farther down the same road he lives on. Since the disaster, he rarely drives past his house.

"I can't go down there. He's not there," Clay said. "I can't go hunt and fish with him. We can't have lunch together and talk. I won't ever be able to do that again."

Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

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