Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Scotia Mine Disaster

scotiawidows.gifI just finished reading Gerald Stern’s recent book, “The Scotia Widows: Inside their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coal.”

Many of you may recall that Stern wrote a book about his experience as the lawyer for victims of the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, in which a coal-slurry dam failure killed 125 people in Logan County, W.Va.

Stern also represented widows of the Scotia Mine Disaster. And while this new book isn’t as good as the Buffalo Creek one, it is well worth the read.

It’s also a pretty timely book in a couple of ways.

On March 6, 1976, a violent explosion ripped through the Scotia Mine in Eastern Kentucky. Fifteen miners who were working nearly three and a half miles underground were killed. The United States Mine Rescue Association has posted a short description of the disaster on its Web site.

Here are the things that make this book especially timely:

1. Two days after the first explosion, a second blast took the lives of 11 rescue workers, including three federal safety inspectors. The events were eerily like what happened in August 2007 at the Murray Energy Crandall Canyon operation in Utah. At Crandall Canyon, six miners were killed in an Aug. 6 mine “bump” and three rescue workers killed 10 day later in a follow-up mine collapse.

2. Six of the miners who died in the initial explosion were found huddled behind a makeshift barricade, a scene that was repeated in January 2006 at the Sago Mine Disaster, down to the name of the section of the mine — 2 Left.

3. In their Scotia case, Stern and his fellow lawyers spent much of their time battling with a hostile judge, who it turned out had a personal financial interest in the coal industry but initially refused to step down from hearing the case. Today, of course, media reports abound about West Virginia State Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to step down from a case involving Massey Energy, despite Massey CEO Don Blankenship largely bankrolling his election victory. (Benjamin recently did temporarily agree not to hear Massey cases while the U.S. Supreme Court considers the matter of whether he has a conflict of interest).

Anyone interested in coal history will want to read Stern’s book.

For my next coal-related book, I plan to read “Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coalfields,” by my friend and WVU history professor, Ron Lewis.

I hope to make discussions of coal books a regular feature of Coal Tattoo, so if you have suggestions for new titles on the topic, please post them on my comments section.