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‘This has got to stop’

MADISON — It’s becoming a too-common sight in West Virginia: On Thursday, two small white crosses marked the lawn of the Boone County Courthouse, one for Edmund Vance of Bim and one for Paul Moss of Sissonville. Both miners died on the job in Boone County the day before.

It is the first time death has touched Boone County’s mines during these fatal first weeks of 2006. But here in the center of the Mountain State’s coal industry, they have grieved for every miner lost.

Four weeks ago, this same spot held 12 crosses, one for each miner who died in the Sago disaster in Upshur County. Two weeks ago, there were two crosses, for the two miners who died in a Logan County coal mine fire.

“This,” County Administrator Jim Gore said of the rash of mine deaths, “has got to stop.”

Gov. Joe Manchin says so, too. Immediately after the two Boone deaths Wednesday, he called for every mine in the state to take time out for safety discussions at the beginning of each shift. Mine inspectors were to fan out across the state for extra safety checks at every mine.

Here in Boone County, people say Manchin did exactly the right thing.

“Safety should come first over everything,” said Gore, who worked for 22 years at Long Branch Energy, owner of the mine where Vance was killed when a wall support collapsed onto him.

“They know what they’re doing, and they work safely,” he said of Long Branch. But, he added, “You can’t foresee everything.

“Like the governor says, enough’s enough. Let’s find out what’s going on ...

“Not one life is worth a lump of coal.”

Back to work at Black Castle

Only two counties in the nation — one in Pennsylvania and one in Wyoming — mine more coal per year than Boone County, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Eight of the top 10 employers here are coal mines, the state Bureau of Employment Programs says.

“Without coal, there probably wouldn’t be a Boone County,” Gore said.

So when Manchin said while announcing the safety checks Wednesday that “We’re not going to produce another lump of coal until this is done,” Boone County residents wondered what that really meant.

Jerry Williams of Van works at Massey Energy subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co.’s Black Castle Surface Mine, where his friend and co-worker Moss was killed when his bulldozer hit a gas line and caught fire.

“I called last night and they said they weren’t running third shift” — Williams’ shift. But by Thursday morning, the mine was running again, he said.

The only part of the mine that would have been shut down for investigation would have been the accident site itself, which was apart from the area of mining activity on an isolated piece of land that was being cleared, said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

At 3:30 p.m., Williams was just leaving his house in Van to go to work.

“This morning, they had a safety meeting right off the bat,” Williams said. He was told he would have one before his shift, too.

Williams said his mine has always had safety meetings every Monday. “I’d say there will be more now,” he said.

A Massey subsidiary also owns the Logan County mine that caught fire and killed two miners last month.

Williams, 32, said he has found Massey to be a good company during the three and a half years he has worked at Black Castle. He called Moss’ death “a freak accident,” and said Moss was an experienced, safe miner.

He said he isn’t worried about going to work — but his family worries about him.

He said Manchin’s call for safety discussions and checks was the right thing to do, in light of the 16 mine deaths in four weeks.

“I think he made the right decision,” he said.

‘Tell me, is my daddy dead?’

Missy Peters, who lives right next to the Long Branch mine in Wharton, was related to Vance by marriage. She said he had worked in the mines all his life.

“I think it’s good what [Manchin] did,” Peters said, during her shift at Giovanni’s Pizza in Van. “Too many people are getting killed.”

Peters’ husband works at a Kanawha County coal mine. His mine has the Monday safety checks, too. She stopped worrying so much about him when he got out from underground and got an outside job at the mine — but then he was involved in a mine accident. “He got hurt when he was outside the mines,” she said.

Her co-worker, Anita Messer, remembers losing her brother-in-law, Robert Osborne, to a roof fall in a Mingo County mine 13 years ago this month.

She remembers having to tell her niece, who was about 8 years old at the time.

“She knew her mamaw was upset,” Messer remembered. “She looked at me and said, ‘Tell me, is my daddy dead?’ I didn’t have to tell her. She knew.”

She agrees with Manchin’s orders to speed up inspections.

“They ought to. They ought to make them safe,” she said.

“It’s our husbands and brothers and fathers. It could happen to anybody.”

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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