So they got a lawyer. Other families got lawyers. And earlier this year, the last of the wrongful-death claims filed by the families against Massey Energy and inherited by the company that bought them, Alpha Natural Resources, came down to four days of mediation at a green and manicured golf resort about an hour’s drive from the blasted-out hulk of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
Offers were made and refused. Then Patty Quarles, her head pounding with a migraine, looked at a number, looked at her distraught husband, thought of her two grandchildren, and finally said, “Do it.”
With that, and with other families agreeing to settlements whose terms remain confidential, millions of dollars have begun raining down on Appalachia, a bitter resolution for families who had hoped other forms of justice would also materialize.
More than two years after an explosion that an independent panel appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin blamed on a corporate culture that put “the drive to produce coal above worker safety,” no former high-ranking Massey executives have been criminally charged. No new federal mine safety legislation has passed, a matter Gary Quarles and other families pressed in Washington recently, carrying posters of their lost sons, brothers and husbands into the red-carpeted offices of senators and representatives.
“This was my son, Gary Wayne,” Quarles said to lawmakers over and over and to reporters on a day that began with three anti-depressants. “I called him my son, but he was a man, a real man.” He paused to compose himself. “We are here for safety . . .”
But he and others left without any new assurances on legislation.
For now there is just the money, money that has poured into local bank accounts and trust funds, more money than most mining families ever had and some say they ever really wanted, bringing a question they did not want either: what to do next.
A few have used it to say good-bye forever to West Virginia. Most, according to lawyers involved, have stayed exactly where they have always been, where their new wealth has settled uneasily.
Gary Quarles sat on the front porch of his trailer in Horse Creek Hollow, a stretch of grass and wild orange lilies in the mountains where he and his wife have lived for more than 30 years.
The trailer had new paint. Two new white trucks were in the gravel driveway. The trailer 40 feet away, where his son lived, had a new roof and new furniture, although no one lives there.
“Money,” said Quarles, a bearded, thick-armed 56-year-old. “Yeah.”
He sat there through the cool morning and into the afternoon, watching one rain shower and then another, not eating, not drinking, not even a glass of water.