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Graveyard Shift

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Trusty earlier than lifeless night on November 19, 1968, ninety-​nine men working on the “cat-​quiz shift” at Consolidation Coal Firm’s Quantity 9 mine walked into its bathhouse and started pulling on their thick work shirts and darkly smudged overalls. Superstitious, none of them dared call their 12 am to eight am flip within the mine the “graveyard shift.”

They stepped into steel cages and started their virtually six-​hundred-​foot tumble to the mine’s sooty ground. The oldest among them became sixty-​two, the youngest handiest nineteen. They lived on narrow, pitching streets in small northern West Virginia mining communities known as Idamay, Mission, and Shinnston. One had mined coal for forty-​two years, one more for correct eight days. A lot of the men on the cat-​quiz shift were veterans. By 1968 1,400 men from Marion County had fought in Vietnam.

After they reached the bottom, the miners broke into six- to eight-​man crews and boarded mantrips—​electrical inform–​admire autos that ran on rails or had rubber tires—​that carried them thru Quantity 9’s mountainous network of spidery tunnels to their workstations. For the next eight hours they’d slice lend a hand and cargo coal. One crew toiled at releasing a gargantuan share of gear that had been covered with slate and particles at some level of a roof drop whereas the others clawed coal out of the mine’s wealthy seams.

However incomes a living became no longer essentially the most handy thing on their minds. They knew that the shift of miners working earlier than them had had to close digging three cases, once for two and a half of hours, whereas the mine’s four big surface followers drew fresh air into its tunnels and diluted deadly methane gas.

They also knew that they were working at essentially the most unhealthy jobs within the nation for an organization that became obsessed with extracting as much coal as it can also.

In 1963 The Atlantic known as coal mining a “mortician’s paradise,” and for lawful motive. The federal authorities first started compiling statistics on coal-mining deaths and serious accidents in 1900, and by November 1968 over 101,000 coal miners had been overwhelmed, gassed, electrocuted, or incinerated underground, whereas one more 1.5 million had been significantly injured. Coal mining’s wound charge became four cases higher than that of any different industrial job within the United States and fourteen cases higher than the national average for all workers.

Now not less than one more 150,000 active and retired coal miners had pneumoconiosis, or dim lung, contracted by inhaling coal mud, which made their lungs as porous as fishing nets and grew to change into them into wheezing wrecks.

The Consolidation Coal Firm and the reckless draw it operated Quantity 9 had added to these grim statistics. In 1954 an underground blast killed sixteen miners working on a cool Saturday in November. Some engineers argued then that the mine became too unhealthy and gassy to reopen, but its coal deposits were too wealthy for its house owners to abandon.

Eleven years later, a four-​man crew became standing on a scaffold 233 ft at some level of the mine’s 577-​foot-​deep Llewellyn airshaft when a spark below ignited a pocket of methane gas. The four men were orbited up and out of the big shaft’s mouth as if they had been shot out of a bazooka. Their shredded body parts were found later in a creek, seventy-​5 ft from the shaft.

Consolidation Coal Firm simply wrote off these losses because the price of doing business. By 1968 it became the ideal bituminous coal producer within the nation. Workers who complained about the mine’s downhearted security stipulations were neglected, and the coal company gave its loudest critics essentially the most unhealthy jobs.

Appalshop, Inc., Documentary Peep Mission, by Earl Dotter, c. 1975.

The gruesome drama of a shift of coal miners trapped in a burning gap a week earlier than Thanksgiving attracted the nation’s ideal dailies and news networks, making this the first predominant mine danger in United States historical previous to be nationally televised. Whereas the first explosion had killed about a of the miners at once, others had adequate time to put on their gas masks. Restoration crews later found an originate first-​lend a hand bundle and bodies lying on a sheet of canvas, as if about a of the trapped men had lain down together to conserve their dwindling present of fresh air.

The news cameras were soundless rolling when apologists for the coal change trooped earlier than newshounds to circle the wagons. John Roberts, who headed Consolidation Coal Firm’s public relatives division, described the explosion as “something that we must live with,” as did J. Cordell Moore, an assistant secretary on the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Hulett C. Smith, governor of West Virginia. Smith, who led a say wherein there became more debate about whether or no longer there could maybe presumably possess to be sex training in its public schools than about security in its coal mines, lectured the grieving families that “we must look that that is a hazardous business and what has occurred here is one amongst the hazards of being a miner.”

However essentially the most appropriate performance became that given by W.A. “Tony” Boyle, carrying his signature Washington uniform of a fedora, a pressed tear neatly with, and a purple rose in his lapel. His few appearances within the coalfields were customarily carefully staged, allowing him time to don a original pair of overalls and modern work boots, but this time Boyle swooped onto the scene in a helicopter furnished by the coal company.

When he stepped as much as the without note erected podium within the company store, Boyle timorous many of other folks that had gathered to listen to his anticipated words of sorrow and outrage by as an alternative, in a flat, nasal remark, praising Consolidation Coal Firm’s security listing and its historical previous of cooperation with the union. He reminded the families, as if they didn’t already comprehend it, that coal mining became an extraordinarily unhealthy draw to make a living. The general public spectacle of the UMWA’s president defending the grossly negligent, if no longer outright criminal, actions of a coal company whereas seventy-​eight of his coal miners lay entombed in its burning mine scared many of the onlookers. “I hated him moral then,” Judy Henderson, now a widow at correct twenty-​one, told the Washington Post. “I couldn’t take into consideration any individual can also sigh that moral in front of the mine where all our husbands were buried alive.”

Many of the families clung to hope until the day after Thanksgiving. On the evening of Friday, November 29, once they gathered to hope at some level of the James Fork United Methodist Church, John Corcoran, president of Consolidation Coal, improved and told them the time had near seal the mine. He had already told a team of native ministers on Thanksgiving that there became no hope, but he had no longer wished to give the families such awful news on the nation’s day of prayer and thanks.

The grieving families—​235 young of us had misplaced their fathers and 74 females had misplaced their husbands within the underground inferno—​had small motive to take into consideration that this most up-to-date coal mining danger would be treated any in a different draw than the total ones that had near earlier than it. The nation’s response to tragedies reminiscent of Quantity 9 had repeatedly been the identical: prayers, an outpouring of sympathy for the widows and young of us, toothless coal-mining security regulations, and a return to the collective amnesia that allowed things within the mines to transfer on as they repeatedly had.

Excerpted from Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of The usa. Copyright © 2020 by Designate A. Bradley. Broken-down with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Firm, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cover of Blood Runs Coal

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