This morning, “Good Morning America” brought in Diane Sawyer for an update on the explosion inside the Upper Big Branch mine owned by the Richmond, VA-based Massey Energy company. Twenty five people died in the mine; 4 were missing at the time of this report. Rescue workers were still searching. This is being described as the worst mining accident in the U.S. in 25 years. Every time I hear of these mining accidents, I catch my breath.
After a sobering one-on-one with WV Governor Joe Manchin on the Coal River Valley scene, I see video of Sawyer, in lamp strapped hardhat and canvas one-suit, heading inside the mines. Sawyer is a Kentucky native. She’s inspired by the stoic faith and endurance even in the face of tragedy.
Once I got on line, I saw another story on the mine tragedy with a profile of the owner of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship. And then another describing the Upper Big Branch-South Mine as having over 3,000 safety violations since 1995. I’m guessing this is not the kind of PR Blankenship wants right now. If it was local, he could probably take care of it in his own way — but national?
In a 2006, article, Blankenship’s bio is described as follows:
Raised just up the road from Matewan, the scene of an epic 1921 strike, Mr. Blankenship keeps a reminder of his anti-union beliefs in the back of his office. In 1985, Massey broke from the industry and insisted that miners at each site negotiate separately with the company. During the 11-month strike that resulted, someone shot through Mr. Blankenship’s office window. The old Zenith television whose screen was shattered by the bullet still sits not far from his desk.
Needless to say, this Massey Energy Company mine is non-union. Union leaders have already chimed in.
My friend Clayton reminded me to check out the John Sayles film Matewan about the shootout between local miners (who were trying to form a union, now the UMWA) and the mining company’s hired guns (the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency), in the town of the same name. The event is still known as the “Matewan Massacre.”
Here is a compelling interview I found on YouTube with a Matewan local about that history posted by DBZchickie. It’s just under 11 minutes, but well worth it.
The tragedy of Blankenship’s story is that he is not an outsider; he is a “one of us” of West Virginia’s coal mining community. Perhaps it’s an insider perspective that has been the key to his success. He understands the culture that makes coal and WV one identity.
“God put coal up there,” agreed Teddy Jarrell, 45, who works at a paint and body shop but whose father was a miner. “He give us but one way to get it out, that’s it. God put the coal up there for us to get out to survive. So that’s the way you get it out — take the mountain off.”
Or is this more of the “what will be will be” balm to sooth the soul?
By the time “World New Tonight” broadcast, Sawyer is talking one-on-one with Don Blankenship who tells her that “coal mining has risks…there’s danger to everything.” Diane gave Blankenship a free microphone and a pass on the tough questions when she was face-to-face with him. Somehow these tragedies have become like a gambling game — to stay in, you have to take the risk especially if it’s the only game in town. I’m sure most coal miners see it as a temporary gig and, God willing, they’ll retire early enough with enough cash socked away to enjoy a few leisure years despite occupational hazards like black lung. That would be, on these terms, a happy ending.
Meanwhile, the tough talk is coming from spotty investigative reporter Brian Ross who sited a 2008 ABC story on Blankenship where the mining CEO told the crew they “you’re liable to get shot” for taking photos, and then grabbed the camera lens. This story related to Blankenship’s influence on WV’s Supreme Court judges through his campaign fundraising.
In 2009 Diane Sawyer did a report “Children in Central Appalachia.” Even with the hard facts of poverty, bad health, and shorter lifespans, Sawyer still sticks to the “poor with dignity” narrative. Sawyer also treats this as returning to her Kentucky roots: “I am one of us.” Unlike Jamie Oliver who is trying to change the food narrative on the ABC reality series Food Revolution. Maybe the next chapter for Diane Sawyer is to call a town hall meeting.
Prayers are asked for.
Condolence messages are being collected for the grieving families of Upper Big Branch on a blog set up by West Virginia University.
Nuttin’ Fancy is accepting checks to support volunteer efforts and feed rescue workers. Find out more at this blog. They’re local.