Danger Goes Along With Being A Coal Miner

Rescue workers labored through the night to drill vent holes into part of a mine in southern West Virginia. It's an effort to rescue four miners still trapped inside. Twenty-five men were killed by Monday's blast — the worst U.S. mining disaster in 25 years. Area residents say they learn not to dwell on the possibility of mine accidents.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

This week's mine disaster in West Virginia calls attention to an industry and to a way of life. Thats what coal mining remains for thousands of Americans who work underground, and for the families who wait for their return.

MONTAGNE: Families of at least 25 miners know their loved ones will not return, after an explosion underground. Rescue workers are searching for four miners still missing. In a moment, we'll report on a bitter irony: The disaster came just after the mining industry marked its safest year ever.

INSKEEP: We begin in a community that has learned to live with the dangers.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Jessica Reed(ph) grew up in Bolt, West Virginia, and went to high school with one of the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine. Reed now works behind the desk of the Charleston Inn. She is a coal miner's daughter, studying to be a nurse. The coal mines, she says, keep West Virginia running.

Ms. JESSICA REED: One, it's a way of life. And two, it's the quickest way to start making enough money to support a family right out of high school, cause it doesnt require going to college or anything like that. I mean, you can make a good living. It's one of the few jobs in West Virginia that you can live on just that one income coming in.

NAYLOR: The steep hills and narrow valleys throughout much of West Virginia dont accommodate a lot in the way of other industries. Coal and its attendant dangers have long been a part of life here.

Reed says that danger is usually not thought about a lot.

Ms. REED: I think it's just one of those things where you just kind of have it in the back of your mind, but you dont think anything is going to happen until it does. It's not one of those professions that you can think about the dangers all the time, cause it's just a way that you make a living. It's a way to put your food on your table.

My dad done it for 27 years, and we didnt think like that. I didnt ever think, well, when he went out to do a mine shift that he wasnt coming back. He was going to work.

NAYLOR: But thats what happened to at least 25 miners Monday; they didnt come back.

Coal River Road runs by the Upper Big Branch Mine and several others. It's also dotted with tiny towns, and nearly every church and carryout seems to have a sign out front with a simple message: Pray for Our Miners.

Nick Prilamen(ph) is the nephew of Benny Willingham, another of the mine's victims. Willingham was set to retire in a few weeks. Prilamen, like many family members here, is angry with the mine's operator, Massey Energy Company, which he's says didnt have the courtesy to personally notify the relatives of those who died in the blast.

Mr. NICK PRILAMEN: It's very hard when you - especially when you have to wait for answers, for an - obsoletion. It's - the waiting part was the hardest, you know, because you want to hope the best. And for eight hours last night, our family sat together and prayed and hoped for the best. But again, every day when a man or a woman goes into the mines, they may not come out.

NAYLOR: The company has apologized to family members over the notification issue.

Massey Energy has also been the focus of criticism over the Upper Big Branch Mine safety record. The company was fined nearly $400,000 in the past year because of safety violations, many related to the issues of methane gas and coal dust build-up.

Massey's CEO, Don Blankenship, defended his company's safety record to reporters yesterday.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): Im concerned about every mine that we have. And yes, any mine that has more than its fair share of violation and fair share of accidents, if you will, average accidents - we're more concerned about. You know, I constantly pass information and talk to our engineers about improvement.

NAYLOR: The company hopes to drill four holes into the mine today, to draw the methane and carbon monoxide out of the mine and allow rescue workers back in.

It's hoped the four miners - whose fate remains unknown - have found emergency supplies of air masks and food. But officials acknowledge the long odds for survival of the four, and say they're looking for a miracle.

Brain Naylor, NPR News, Charleston, West Virginia.

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