Former Miner Explains Culture Of Mining

In 2006, when a coal mine explosion trapped 13 miners for two days in Sago, W.Va., only one man emerged. The eulogy for those lost miners was delivered by Homer Hickam, a West Virginia native and former coal miner who chronicled the livelihood in several novels. His book, Rocket Boys, about growing up in the West Virginia coal fields, was made into the film October Sky. He talks with host Michel Martin about the profession, in the context of this latest tragedy — an explosion in Montcoal, W.Va., on Monday that claimed the lives of more than 20 people.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to Homer Hickam. He's a West Virginia native who comes from a coal mining family and knows firsthand the hazards of working in the mines. His grandfather lost both of his legs in West Virginia's Coalwood mine. His father lost sight in one of his eyes while trying to rescue trapped miners, but went on working in the mines nonetheless.

Homer Hickam himself, a former miner, went on to write books about America's coal country. His memoir, "Rocket Boys," was made into the movie "October Sky." And when 12 miners died in the 2006 Sago explosion, Hickam delivered the eulogy and he's with us now. Welcome, and thank you so much for speaking with us on such a sad day.

Mr. HOMER HICKAM (Author, "Rocket Boys"): Yeah, well, thank you for having me. It's always my pleasure to kind of stick up for coal miners, and I hope that my books and the movies and all that kind of thing can help do that. But anytime there's a disaster like this, I'm always willing to talk to folks around the country about the mining industry and the very, very special people who are involved with it.

MARTIN: When you delivered that eulogy, you quoted your father saying there's no men in the world like miners, sonny. What did he mean by that?

Mr. HICKAM: Well, my dad loved coal mining. It was in his blood and he loved his coal miners. And he was simply proud to be one of them. And that's the thing about coal miners, they are typically very proud of who they are. They're the type of folks who stand up for what they believe. They consider the family holy. They just they keep their families together. They're quite religious, they trust in God. But they're self-reliant, so they trust in God, but rely on themselves.

MARTIN: When you hear the term salt of the earth...

Mr. HICKAM: Yeah, definitely coal miners come to mind.

MARTIN: But you do want to ask, though, there's been some awful, you know, mining disasters in other countries around the world. But even in this country where, you know, mine fatalities have fallen sharply in recent decades, as I understand it, that more than 100,000 coal miners have been killed in accidents in this country since 1900. It was not unusual, as late as the 1940s, to have more than 1,000 mining deaths a year.

Mr. HICKAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so I think the question a lot of people would have is, why do people still do this work?

Mr. HICKAM: Well, again, they love it. They're highly trained, it's what they know best, it's their world. And to take the skills that they have and go somewhere else and apply them, well, they probably they wouldn't have as much fun. I know a lot of people think that that's strange for me to say, but coal miners actually have fun with what they do. Every day there is a challenge down there. They want to meet their production quotas. They want to make their foreman happy. They want to make their buddies happy. They want to learn new things. They're very bright, intelligent, quick-to-learn folks generally.

You can't be slow-witted and be a coal miner be a successful coal miner. They don't last, usually, very long. So, again, you're just dealing with a very special type of person.

MARTIN: Would you just talk a little bit more about that, though. You said it's fun, what's fun about it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HICKAM: Well, what's fun is that it's an adventure. Every day is an adventure. A lot of folks, their jobs are kind of tedious and routine, but for coal miners it's not. Every day there's something new, there's some challenge to overcome. There's some special things that they have to do to get the coal out and also keep themselves safe. So, every day at the end of the day, they're able to say, hey, we loaded x number of tons of coal, we all got out safely, so they have a sense of satisfaction that they did something important. You know, that goes a long way toward the quality of life.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that the flipside of that attitude that we are kind of warriors of the earth, in a way, you know...

Mr. HICKAM: Well, you know, that can get dangerous, too.

MARTIN: That was going to be my question, because there is this discussion now that there's something - there's, like, a culture that discourages complaints about safety, and I wonder if you think that's true.

Mr. HICKAM: Yeah, we need to overcome that. And, you know, when I worked for NASA, anybody, any minion could stand up and say I think that this launcher is unsafe, and we would stop the countdown. We need to inculcate that into the mindset of the coal miner as well, to stand up and say, hey, we've got a problem here. And they got somebody to turn to.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, as it's called, is a very, very powerful federal regulatory agency. And all they need to do is to mention anything to an inspector, and that inspector actually has the power to shut down the operation, actually to shut down the entire coal mine. But typically miners try to work through any problems. They're not complainers by nature and so you can see the problem there.

MARTIN: But is it a situation where they don't get paid if they don't work? So, they have as much of an incentive to keep working even if it isn't safe?

Mr. HICKAM: No, not really. Most of the miners today are salaried employees. They make anywhere, entry salaries can be anywhere between $25,000 and $40,000. The average salary for a coal miner is $70,000. A lot of them make over $100,000 a year. So, maybe there's an incentive to keep working certainly and to keep your coal mine productive, so you can continue that quality of life.

But when you're working a situation like this, it really behooves every miner, every foreman, every mine owner, every MSHA inspector to remember that every though worked fine today, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work fine tomorrow. So, you got to stay sharp.

They do have a requirement every day to have a safety meeting. Every worker is supposed to attend a safety meeting given by their foreman every day. And so, for the foreman need to kind of sharpen on those, I think, across the industry, and make sure that the safety briefings are to the point, and also to remind miners that if they see anything, there will be no penalty, there will be no punishment, if they will step up and let the foreman know about it.

MARTIN: And, finally, could I ask you, since it's kind of your role to put that which we don't wish to speak of into words, I wanted to just ask, you know, what's going through your mind at a time like this when, you know, so many lives have been lost? What are you feeling right now?

Mr. HICKAM: I hate it. I just think that in this day and age, we shouldn't lose any lives underground, in underground coal mining. We know how to keep these coal mines safe. So, something dropped through the crack here, something went terribly wrong. We need to find out what it was. If there's any miscreants, we need to punish them, but we need to get on with it.

We do need the coal mining industry. It is the backbone of the American economy. It would collapse without cheap energy and that in this country equals coal. So we got to keep it going until we can find a reasonable substitute. And right now, there's not much on the horizon.

MARTIN: Writer and West Virginia native Homer Hickam joined us from Huntsville, Alabama. His memoir about growing up in West Virginia coal country was made into the movie "October Sky" back in 1999. He's also the author of a number of other books, including "We Are Not Afraid." And thank you so much for speaking with us, Homer Hickam.

Mr. HICKAM: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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