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Tunnels of Love
Published on Sunday, January 8, 2006 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
Tunnels of Love
by Dennis Roddy

Tallmansville, West Virginia -- Standing in the kitchen he left behind, Fred Ware's daughter talked about how her father loved the place that finally took him.

In the bituminous streaks of Appalachia, going underground and gouging black rocks seems a necessary agony. It is hard to understand the attraction. Few towns lack a monument to men broken beneath fallen earth, or strangled by the damp, black dust that ruins the air after an explosion.

But in the quiet moments after grief has left room for remembrance, nobody here could recall a father or brother or son who wanted out.

"He loved the mines. He wouldn't have done anything else," said Peggy Cohen. "He just said he would never retire. He said, 'I'll probably die working in the mines.' "

A day earlier, she'd driven to the morgue to identify her father. In an hour, she'd go to the mine office and retrieve the lunch pail he carried with him, the remaining artifact of 41 years spent digging coal like his own father and grandfather.

Mining is not the most dangerous occupation. Logging is. But the distance in risk between them is thin, and the wage, union rates notwithstanding, is easily interrupted by the smallest flutters in energy prices. Layoffs are the norm. Rarely has a coal miner's family pushed beyond the lower fringes of the middle class.

These people do not mine coal because they feel safe. They mine it because they feel, at their core, they belong inside the mountains on which they live, just as a woodsman cuts in his forest. Coal mining, like logging, is a job affixed to a place and in the hollows of Appalachia, sense of place is sense of self.

Sago Mine is owned by International Coal Group, a company led by an investment wizard who scoops up dying industries just after they've shed the toxins of pension and benefits and cast off the people that built the firm. It took International Coal four days to do it, but on Thursday they issued a statement that included the names of the 12 men who died inside their mine. Instead of listing an age beside each victim's name, the company listed years of mining experience.

Terry Helms, the fire boss who checked the mine at the beginning of the fatal shift, was 50 years old, but 29 years in mining age. Jerry Groves, 56, a roof bolter, had 28 years. After 59 years of life, Fred Ware clocked in at 37 years underground, though his daughter estimated another five on top of that.

Martin Toler Jr., section foreman, was 50 years old and spent 32 of them scratching coal.

"He loved it. He just loved it," said his son, Chris. "You know what to do with yourself and for the others beside you."

It is a telling point that the anger swirling around Upshur County is not about whether the accident could have been prevented. Sago Mine has a spotty record, but the number of safety citations doesn't always tell the story.

"That's every mine," said Chris Toler. "You're in a mine. The roof is never going to be great."

The anger came from false hope. It is a commodity with absolutely no currency in a part of the world where poverty is atmospheric and a sense of roots locks people to the place of their impoverishment. When word arrived at midnight that the miners were alive, families rang the church bell, sang hymns of praise and steeled themselves for a reunion. It took three hours for Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal, to sort through the bad information and make an appearance at the church, where he gave a halting, slowly delivered buildup, then read from a statement telling revelers that, in fact, 12 men were dead, and one was alive.

As the weekend arrived, miners' families had not heard again from International Coal. "I think they owe us an explanation," Mrs. Cohen said. "We haven't heard 'sorry for your loss.' "

Actually, the company did say that. They said it in a press release. It seemed safer.

The galling swing between jubilation and grief made the families of Sago Mine feel simultaneously sad and ridiculous. They could have dealt with the first, but will never forgive the latter.

Robert Rupp, a professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan College, just up the road in Buckhannon, summarized the dilemma: "These are coal mining people. They're used to tragedy. All they ask for is to be told the truth."

That debt must somehow be paid, if not by International Coal, then by the agencies empowered to find out what happened last Monday. It might change some things, though not all of them. More men and women will die beneath the earth and, like the miners of Sago, we will want to know why they died.

They have already given generations of testimony to why they were there to begin with: They are home.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at 

© 2006 Post-Gazette


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