The state's terrain often makes your next foothold a challenge, and that can be cutting across a field as well as climbing Seneca Rocks. But the state's cragginess is also its loveliness. Its mountain mining towns are hard pressed to find enough level ground on which to build a bank and run a railroad track. The people who live in these towns stick up their houses in places the rest of us might find precarious.
The West Virginia coal miners (and their families) that I've met strike me as folks who keep going pretty cheerfully through what seems like the hardest of hard lives. Of course, I'm sure they're on their best behavior when reporters come to call; but you cannot really fake coming to terms with life, which is what most of them appear to this reporter to have done.
As you can perhaps tell, I have a great love for West Virginia, the wild and wonderful, almost uninhabitable, coal-mining part of the state. And great affection and respect for its people.They were born in a great place to vacation, but a tough place to make a living.
And it's a tough place to escape, as well, because it takes money to escape. And in this part of West Virginia, there's subsistence farming, the tourist industry, and coal mining. The last two might generate big money for their owners, but they offer getting-by wages only for their workers.
Way back in 2003, I was assigned by NPR to report on how West Virginians felt about CBS's bright idea to create a reality show called The Real Beverly Hillbillies. The idea was to select a real Appalachian family, plunk them down into Beverly Hills, and see what happened.
A lot of the folks I talked to around Appalachia were pretty offended by the idea. Except, that is, the West Virginia coal mining families, the people whom CBS was actually thinking of basing the show around, and they were all for it.
The fathers in these families were mostly second- and third-generation miners, currently driving miles and miles to get work in one of West Virginia's dwindling number of operational mines. These families lived in houses no one else wanted to buy, in towns without viable stores, and without organized activities for kids besides whatever went on at church. The grown-ups were looking for any way to give their children a few more options than they'd had themselves. To these people, getting a hundred grand for going on a TV reality show was the equivalent of winning a full scholarship to a better life.
The truth is that a lot of us never think about West Virginia coal miners. And, from my time among them, I really think they're fine with that, fine taking care of their own. Until that is, they go and make the front page of the New York Times by dying. And then they need help, and the world rushes in to supply it.
Death Toll in West Virginia Coal Mine Blast Hits 25 MONTCOAL, W.Va. — The death toll from a blast at a West Virginia coal mine rose to 25 on Tuesday, federal safety officials said, making it the worst mining accident in the United States in 25 years.
The West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 25 workers and left another four unaccounted for in the worst mining disaster since 1984 had amassed scores of citations from mining safety officials, including 57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow a ventilation plan. The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company. They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them. Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Another Massey subsidiary agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines last year and admitted to willfully violating mandatory safety standards that led to the deaths of two miners. The nation's sixth biggest mining company by production, Massey Energy took in $24 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2009Over the next week or so, the rest of us will probably stay pretty tightly focused on West Virginia coal miners. There will be many expressions of grief and concern from many important people. Those who are responsible for mine safety will become sound-bite machines. Massey Energy executives will come as close to wearing sackcloth and ashes and lashing themselves in public as current custom allows.
Then time will pass, and once again we'll forget about West Virginia and its coal miners. Or, at least, that's the way it's always been before.
Billy Pettry (left) sits with Brandon Gray and Caden Gray, 5, on the steps of the Marsh Fork Worship Center in Eunice, W.Va., near the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine. "As miners we always looked out for one another," says Pettry, a retired coal miner of 20 years.