UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE, W. Va. – On that dismal day in West Virginia history, when the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, a son of one of the miners, Eddie, went from person to person asking: “Is there any word?”
The heartbreaking answer, about his father and 28 of his colleagues, was “no.”
Former Upper Big Branch miner Stanley “Goose” Stewart recounted that scene – and others – on March 21, in a soft voice with a lilting West Virginia accent, to a crowd of people jammed into a congressional hearing room.
Stewart and Christopher Jones, a Louisiana lawyer and brother of one of the 11 men killed when BP’s Deepwater Horizon deep sea oil well exploded, burned and sank in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago, recounted their stories to a rapt audience gathered to commemorate the centennial of yet another tragedy: The March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in Manhattan.
The meeting, run by the National Consumers League, several unions and their allies, was to honor the 146 Triangle victims – and to remind listeners that workplace safety is still subject to the whims of corporations that put people over profits, a century later, and to renew a mass campaign for workers’ rights in both safety and unionization.
What transfixed the crowd were the personal stories, particularly the one “Goose” told about the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey Coal Company’s Upper Big Branch mine. The two stories also reminded the listeners that workers’ lives are at risk – and that when workers die on the job, whole communities suffer.
Upper Big Branch “was one of the most unsafe mines I’ve worked in, and I’ve worked in the mines for 35 years,” Stewart said. He had been a union miner – in mines represented by the United Mine Workers – where conditions were safer, until Massey, known for its flagrant disregard of safety standards, bought them out.
“It was a cult-like atmosphere” at Massey, where the command was “push-push-push and load that coal,” he said. “But you can load coal safely,” Stewart added.
Conditions at Upper Big Branch were so bad, he noted, that fellow miners told him they feared for their lives. “There’s no ventilation at the far end” of the long mine wall, three miles deep inside the mountain, one told him. Ventilation is a key to any underground coal mine – and later probes called Upper Big Branch’s ventilation lacking.
And, then, that April 5, the blast occurred.
“The day of the explosion, I was 300 feet inside the mine entrance, sitting on a man ship” and waiting to be conveyed further into the mine, Stewart explained. There, Goose would join his friends – miners are a close-knit community in the West Virginia mountains – “Spanky (the one who feared for his life), Eddie, Eddie’s two nephews, Timmy, “Griff” and the others.
“In a matter of seconds, I felt a slight breeze coming from inside the mine – and that was wrong. We were three miles at least from the point of the explosion, but it was like a hurricane hit. We stumbled out as fast as we could and then turned and looked. Buckets and debris were flying out.
“One guy said there must have been a big roof fall” inside. “I said, ‘No roof fall is going to create what we experienced. The mine blew up.'”
The management team arrived before rescue teams and went in – they were the ones Eddie’s son talked to – but what came out, Stewart said, was another man ship with nine men in it. Eight were dead. More followed later. The bodies were laid out on the pavement of a parking lot, and Stewart made sure there were blankets under each.
“I couldn’t just let them lie there on that cold concrete,” he added. “And I crossed their hands” in front of their chests. “They needed some respect.”
“And then I sat down and cried.”
Stewart has told his story several times on Capitol Hill, adding that for families, the worst part was uncertainty. His wife, for example, couldn’t get through by phone, and knew something had happened, but didn’t know what.
Stewart still sees his friends in his mind’s eye, especially at night when he usually can’t sleep without strong medicine. He’s told his story while urging lawmakers to strengthen mine safety laws and crack down on rogue operators, such as Massey.
So has Jones, who lost his brother Gordon, a “mud” engineer checking the mixture used to keep oil pressure down at a well, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. BP “has a lot of money riding on this. The only way they’ll make changes is if they have incentives” to do so – such as big fines and jail terms — he said.
Jones noted a Steelworkers local president in Louisiana – USW represents oil workers, though not those on deep sea rigs – told him the federal fine against BP for a 2005 refinery blast, at Texas City, Texas, was $50 million, a record. “Or about 20 minutes worth of their profits,” Jones commented. “How much incentive is that?”