As I wait through the latest U.S. coal-mine disaster - six men trapped below the earth in Utah, now made worse with the deaths of three rescue workers - I listen to the radio reports, watch the scenes on television, hear the owner repeating again and again that it's not the company's fault (is it ever?), but more than any of these, I hear the voice of my grandmother.
In March 1924, my grandfather and great-grandfather were both killed in a major explosion at Castle Gate, Utah, not far from Huntington, an explosion that took 172 lives. My grandmother was a young wife with three daughters. My mother - four years old at the time - was one of those daughters.
My grandmother was a gentle and kind woman who persevered after losing a second young husband to the mines a few years later. She raised her daughters alone, worked hard, and lived a good life. She never flinched from the challenges but was usually a quiet, almost timid soul. I heard her raise her voice only once, and that was on a day when I was a teenager and we were alone in the house.
The song "Sixteen Tons" came on the radio in our living room, and when my grandmother heard the lines about owing one's soul to the company store, she jumped out of her chair as if ready for a fight and said in a loud harsh voice I'd never heard, "It's true!" She began to cry, then gritted her teeth and told me the story, her voice rising as she did, the anger pouring out as she spoke of life in a company town with a company store and a company that took away the lives of men and boys - husbands, brothers, fathers, grandfathers.
We didn't talk about the mines after that day, but I was aware of the cost to my grandmother and the family well beyond the immediate deaths of my grandfather - her young Irish Gypsy husband - and my great-grandfather, her own Scots Irish father. Much later, with a writer's curiosity, I researched the events and learned things I hadn't known about my family, about the Castle Gate disaster, and - more to the point - about the coal-mining industry.
The facts were not cheering, but as I read about the battles between owners and miners, about Mother Jones, about the relatively small improvement in mining safety since then, I came to understand my proclivity - perhaps genetic - for the underdog, my knee-jerk response to those who believe greed and power are a useful way of life.
In the late '70s, I took a drive through Utah to see the country in which my mother had grown up, fatherless - a bleak and desolate part of America. I recalled her own stories and tried to picture her there, a child with very little to her name and no father to guide her over those rocky trails.
Castle Gate is a ghost town now, as are many of the former mining towns, and even the once-beautiful rock formation that formed those "gates" about which I'd heard so much when I was young, has been blown away to make room for a better highway. We are so careless with the gifts from nature.
Our dependence on coal is staggering. The pollution is legendary. Alternatives are possible, and yet we continue to send miners into the heart of the Earth to risk their lives to satisfy the apparently unquenchable demand and the rich profits coal provides. We think coal is a "safe" energy source because we can so easily close our eyes to the dangers.
For most people, a few deaths in a coal mine - or fifty, or a hundred - are distant deaths. The pictures and the stories are tragic or touching, to be sure. For a few days, we wait to see what will happen, but once the latest crisis is over for good or ill, we turn our backs and close our eyes, flip on the air conditioner, fire up the computer. None of us goes back to working in a coal mine. Miners' deaths are not our deaths.
But for me and for my family, they are our deaths. As they are for every family who's ever watched a loved one descend to the dark heart of the Earth.
I found a picture on the Web of the coffins being unloaded in Castle Gate in the days following March 8, 1924. I know that my grandfather and my great-grandfather were placed in two of those coffins and that 170 other men and boys were placed in 170 others - Irish, Scots, Italian, English, Greek, Armenian, U.S. citizens - a diverse army of the dead.
Despite technological advances since 1924, many of the mines are not much safer now than then. In Utah, the mine owner deprecates the miners who'd like to organize his mines to demand better conditions.
It doesn't matter. The lawyers will battle over this later. Today, while we wait, is not the day. In Utah, my grandmother and her three young daughters waited for news on a cold, late winter afternoon. The company store may be gone, but miners still die.
In 1914, poet Louis Untermeyer wrote a tribute to miners in his poem, "Caliban in the Coal Mines," the closing stanza of which reads:
"Nothing but blackness above,
And nothing that moves but the cars -
God, if you wish for our love,
Fling us a handful of stars!"
Today, I wait for news. I wish I had known my grandfather. I hope for them all a handful of stars.
Molly Larson Cook is a writer who lives on Whidbey Island.
© 2007 The Seattle Times Company