Monday, August 21, 2006

Memorial Service For Harlan County Miners: "No 'Freak Accidents' In Mining"

A memorial service was held yesterday for the eight Harlan County, KY, miners who died in the coal mines already this year. Five were killed in the Darby disaster on May 20. Fourteen coal miners have died this year in the state of Kentucky, compared with 7 in all of 2005.

The service was organized by former federal mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard and former state mine official Kenny Johnson. Several family members spoke at the ceremony:
In simple, heartfelt testimonials the survivors spoke of their loved ones. Most were in tears; several said they wished they had been able to die in the place of their relatives, including Barbara Halcomb, who said she would have "crawled" to take the place of her son, Brandon Wilder, one of two miners who died in a roof fall at Stillhouse Mining in August 2005.

"It's hard to explain to a 2-year-old that her daddy is never coming home," said Halcomb, a soft-spoken woman with a gray bun, wearing a blue T-shirt with her son's name.

Mike Franks, 29, whose uncle Russell Cole was the other miner killed in the Stillhouse accident, said he will never forget waiting outside the mine when the headlights of the approaching hearse cut through the fog.

"I often think about what it would have been like if he came walking off that mountain instead of riding in a hearse," said Franks, who wept during his comments and left many at the memorial service in tears.
Tony Oppegard put the disasters in political perspective. Here are some excerpts from Tony's speech:
Although miners are mythic figures in many ways - because they work under the mountain in dark, dangerous places, where most of us would not work and will never experience – they nonetheless are rarely recognized by our society until there is a mining disaster. In fact, most miners die one at a time, and they receive very little public attention.


I see a lot of coal miners in the audience . And every miner in this audience - indeed, every miner in Harlan County - knows that there are miners working today in Harlan County, right now on the 2nd shift, who are working in unsafe conditions. There are miners being made to work right now under unsupported top. There are miners who are working without ventilation curtains being hung – and that is why we read the other day in the papers that Harlan County is a “hot spot” for miners who are still contracting black lung disease. There are miners working with the safety features of electrical equipment bypassed or “bridged out”. And there are miners who are working without thorough preshift exams for hazardous conditions and onshift exams for hazardous conditions having been performed. Most miners endure these dangerous conditions for one reason: because they need to support their families and they can’t afford to lose their job, which is precisely what would happen if they complained.

So the next time you hear that a coal miner has been killed by a “freak accident”, don’t accept that characterization. There are no “freak accidents” in mining. The next time you hear that a miner has been killed by an “Act of God”, don’t accept that characterization. Every mining fatality in Harlan County this past year was the result of an act of man, not an act of God.

And the next time you hear the argument that most coal miners cause their own deaths by carelessness - and what is needed is more “behavior modification” by miners and fewer mine inspections by federal and state inspectors – don’t accept that simplistic worn out excuse.