Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Jim Walter Mine Disaster

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UMWA miner Ricky Rose, who survived the 2001 disaster, showed me his truck — decorated to honor his fellow miners who were killed — during a visit to Brookwood, Ala., four years ago.

After a visit to Brookwood, Alabama, four years ago, I wrote these paragraphs as part of a story about coal-dust problems being among the most common violations in America’s coal mines:

On a September afternoon in 2001, 32 miners repaired drilling machines and hoisted tunnel supports into place at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine. The mine is North America’s deepest, tracking the 6-foot-high Blue Creek seam almost a half-mile beneath the rolling hills just east of Tuscaloosa.

At about 5:20 p.m., a chunk of mine roof fell onto a battery charger deep underground. The impact set off a spark, igniting a pocket of methane gas. Four miners were injured, and co-workers rushed to their aid.

Then, at 6:15 p.m., a second, far larger explosion tore through the mine. Thirteen miners died, making it the nation’s worst coal-mining disaster in 17 years.

Today is the 9th anniversary of the disaster at Jim Walter No. 5, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the folks I met during that trip.  I had wanted to visit the Alabama coalfields in part because of the stories I heard about the area from my friend and former Gazette reporter Robert Woodrum, who turned his dissertation on Alabama coal miners into the book, Everybody Was Black Down There: Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields.

There were also West Virginia connections to the disaster. Two of the miners who died, Sammy Joe Riggs and Joseph Sorah, were originally from here.
Sorah was the brother of Nelson Sorah, who was the Gazette’s city editor when I interned here in 1989.

As it turned out, going to Alabama also helped me report on some of the warning signs that were ignored by mining regulators and the industry about lightning strikes and problems with underground mine seals — warning signs that, if heeded, might have presented the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster and maybe the Kentucky Darby Disaster as well.

It’s worth remembering that the Bush administration’s response to Brookwood was to proceed to dismantle the regulatory safety net intended to protect our nation’s coal miners. Since then, we’ve seen not only Sago, Aracoma and Darby, but also Crandall Canyon and now, Upper Big Branch. Since that day in September 2001, 292 coal miners in the United States have died — and that doesn’t count the perhaps 10,000 who succumbed to black lung in the last decade.

They’ll  have a little memorial service in Brookwood again today, to remember the dead and honor their memories. I certainly recall what Darryl Dewberry, vice president of Alabama’s UMWA District 20, told the crowd at the 2006 memorial service that I attended:

The legacy of Brookwood remains unfinished.  It can happen again without constant vigilance.