Funerals Begin in Wake of Mine Disaster

Funerals are held for some of the 12 people who died at the Sago mine in West Virginia coal country. Coal miners in Philippi talk about why they went into the mines — and why they'll keep going back despite the dangers of the work.

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This weekend in Upshur County, West Virginia, funerals began for the 12 coal miners who died in the Sago coal mine disaster this week. Four of the men came from the small town of Philippi. NPR's Audie Cornish spoke with three residents from mining families about working deep in the Earth.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Although over the years, the faces have changed, the reasons people go to work for the coal mines of West Virginia today have not, according to Elden "Butch" Brian.

Mr. ELDEN BUTCH BRIAN: Economics. That's the common denominator: economics. I went into the deep mines when I was 29 years old. I hadn't been married very long, and I needed employment and I needed to make big money 'cause I was going to start having children.

CORNISH: US Labor statistics show the average annual wage in West Virginia hovers around $28,000. Meanwhile, miners can earn more than $50,000 a year. Brian says men who want health care for their families and a living wage can't help but feel the pull of the job. Today, the 72-year-old sells gravestones next door to what's left of his dad's Coal Workers' Shoe Repair Shop(ph). Brian's grandfather and uncles all worked the mines and he followed them under ground. His family's lived for decades in Philippi and he says the community is bonded through the industry.

Mr. BRIAN: Great, great fellowship, comradeship. They wouldn't hurt you for the world and they wouldn't allow you to get hurt for the world. They look after you. Good people. Good people.

CORNISH: Brian says there are fewer mines in his county today and the ones that are operating here are safer. When he was starting out, coal workers walked the mines with little more than flame safety lights. Now miners have methane meters that can give them every detail of the air they're breathing. Still, the Sago incident brings Brian right back to his own time working in the mines.

Mr. BRIAN: I remember coming home and asked my wife what was wrong with her knees, and she said, `Well, I've been praying ever since you left.' She was scared to death. She said she'd never slept any time that I ever worked when I worked in the deep mine. It really bothered her a lot. Very dangerous.

CORNISH: Someone who knows that fear firsthand is Wilma McVicar(ph). She lives on Cherry Hill Road just a street or two over from Brian's store. Her grandfather and two of her uncles worked the mines and her husband Lenny(ph) has done it for more than 35 years.

Mrs. WILMA McVICAR: When you grow up in this area, you're used to mines. I've been in the mines. I know what it looks like. It is cold like a cavern. You have mud. When he first went to work, they didn't have showers and all this stuff. His eyes was black, everything was black when he'd come home. You took Vaseline to get it off of your eyelashes.

CORNISH: Wilma's husband Lenny is a fire boss who works for the International Coal Group, the company that owns the Sago Mine. Lenny rides a motorcycle and was once struck by lightning, but nothing compares to the daily undercurrent of danger in coal mining work.

Mr. LENNY McVICAR: Just one little mistake, that's all. One thing. Maybe you overlooked something or maybe you missed something, or you didn't see it. It can happen. It's there constantly. It's a feeling.

CORNISH: And he's been particularly touched by the deaths at Sago Mine where many of the coal workers who perished were nearing his age.

Mr. McVICAR: It's in your blood. Call it what you like. It's just--well, I'm a coal miner. I've got five years. I've got 10 years. I've got 15 years. I've got 20, 30, 40, whatever and there is the only thing that you know. When you go into that world, it's hard to get away from.

CORNISH: At 64, McVicar says he has one more year to go before hanging up his hat. He hasn't been scared off by the deaths at Sago. In fact, he's heading back to work tomorrow.

Mr. McVICAR: To me, coal mining is a living, is a job, and I like it. I like doing it. I like what I do because eventual--somebody has to do it. Somebody.

CORNISH: And as the demand for coal increases and the technology for extracting it improves, Lenny McVicar says he hopes another generation is prepared to pick up the job. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Philippi, West Virginia.

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