Coal Tattoo

‘I just knew’: End of the year mine disaster update

Dorean Price and her husband, Joel Price, vacationed at Disney just days before he was killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

We had back-to-back stories in the Sunday Gazette-Mail and in today’s Charleston Gazette as kind of an end-of-the-year look at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

I worked a little bit on the first story, which was mostly my buddy Gary Harki’s interview with Dorean Price, who lost her husband in the disaster — just days after the couple returned from a vacation at Disney World:

“There was no work, no grandkids, just the two of us,” Dorean Price recalled.

They got home on Friday, April 2, and spent Saturday with their grandchildren. On Sunday, they went to church.

The next day was April 5. Price went back to his job operating the longwall mining shearer at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Sometime around 3 p.m. that day, Price was deep underground. A massive explosion tore through the Raleigh County mine. Price and 28 of his co-workers were killed.

Looking back now on the Disney trip, Dorean, 52, remembers her husband showering her with gifts.

“During that time, I can’t describe it . . . . I just wanted to ask, ‘Why are you doing this? But I didn’t,'” she said. “You know how you get the feeling that things are too good? It was almost like things are so nice, I’m looking for the other shoe to drop.”

Then today, we followed up with a story from an interview I did with MSHA chief Joe Main last week.

But, as our Sunday story explained, this is the bottom line, really:

Upper Big Branch was the U.S. coal industry’s worst workplace disaster in more than 40 years — since the day that 78 other West Virginia miners died at Farmington in November 1968.

And the Upper Big Branch disaster was the low point of the coal industry’s deadliest year in nearly two decades.

Through Friday, 48 coal miners had died on the job across the nation, the most since 55 were killed in 1992, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. West Virginia accounts for 35 of this year’s deaths, the most in the state since 36 were killed in 1979.

Eight months after the deadly blast, federal and state investigations drag on. Criminal authorities continue to look into Massey’s safety practices, while company CEO Don Blankenship plans his retirement.

Two weeks ago, federal lawmakers in Washington voted down a mine-safety reform bill. Political leaders in West Virginia never even debated such a measure.

Coal prices are up, driven by heavy demand for steel and the potential for a cold winter.

In Southern West Virginia, 29 families are bracing themselves this week for their first Christmas without husbands, sons, brothers, fathers.

“It was pretty tough,” Dorean Price says. “. . . And then, this time of the year, it’s even worse.”