October 25, 2013

“Alone in the darkness . . . the only sound is the pulsing of your heart as the searing heat slowly boils you alive . . . It was reported to be the worst coal mine accident in history. The families of missing miners begged for help but it was decided that a rescue was too dangerous. The miners were left entombed deep underground.”

So begins the Web pitch for the new “Miner’s Revenge” maze, one of 10 haunted attractions meant to tantalize and terrorize visitors during “Halloween Haunt” at Kings Dominion amusement park in the rolling Virginia countryside about 70 miles south of Washington.

The advertisement continues: “Lamps at their sides and pick-axes in their hands they are searching for the men who left them to die . . . waiting to exact their revenge.”

I haven’t gone through the maze, and I don’t intend to, although Kings Dominion spokesman Gene Petriello offered me a free pass. That’s because Miner’s Revenge hits a little too close to home for me.

From 2010 to 2012, I spent a good bit of time researching a real coal-mine disaster for a book published last year: the massive April 5, 2010, underground blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal in southern West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners died in what was the worst U.S. coal-mine disaster in 40 years. Three investigations have found that the incident was the result of Massey’s atrocious safety policies.

To promote the maze, Kings Dominion’s Web site features a garish picture of a badly mutilated half-skeleton. That depiction, unfortunately, is true to reality. At Upper Big Branch, 10 of the 29 dead were blown apart by the explosion. The rest died of carbon monoxide intoxication.

So powerful was the blast that the remains of one miner were not found for days. He had been blown into the ceiling, and rescuers tended to look down. So extensive was the physical trauma to five miners that pathologists couldn’t find enough lung tissue to probe for pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, in their remains.

Tommy Davis, a member of an extended family of miners, was near the mine entrance when the blast occurred. “I felt this wind and all this [expletive] coming out — rocks and wood. I made it outside and was trying to get my bearings. I thought it was a major rock fall, but I remember them all back there: my son, my brother, my nephew and the others.” Davis’s son, Cory, his brother, Timmy, and his nephew, Josh Napper, were killed.

The idea of abandonment is a difficult topic for miners. At Kings Dominion, the suggestion of living miners left to die is meant to inject some enjoyable dramatic tension. At Upper Big Branch, we have the real-life story of Timothy Blake. He told investigators that he was leaving his shift with eight others on a “mantrip,” or small rail car, when the explosion occurred, soon followed by deadly carbon monoxide gas. Blake managed to get his air mask on, but the others struggled. He said he stayed as long as he could but had to leave them when he began to run out of air. The others all suffocated.

Family concern is, of course, another factor. Patty Quarles told me about the terror she felt when she heard the blast. Her son, Gary Wayne, was working in the mine. When she arrived at the site, officials reassured her that he was safe. Later, she said, she was told, “ ‘If I call out your name, go over to Whitesville Fire Department and identify the body.’ That’s how cold it was.” Her son, a 33-year-old father of two, was on the list.

I asked Kings Dominion’s Petriello about the uncomfortably close similarities between “Miner’s Revenge” and the Upper Big Branch tragedy. He said that “Miner’s Revenge is not designed nor intended to depict a specific situation.” He added that officials of amusement park owner Cedar Fair, of Sandusky, Ohio, “express their deepest sympathy” to the victims and their families of the real-life blast.

I believe Petriello is being sincere, but something else tugs at me. For far too long, the deaths of coal miners in the United States, although thankfully decreasing in frequency, still seem to be considered an acceptable and inevitable fact of life. So far this year, 18 coal miners have died, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, about on track with last year’s total. Three died over a three-day period during the federal government shutdown, which interfered with inspections and enforcement operations at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Meanwhile, legislation to improve mine safety, introduced in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, languishes in Congress. It has been caught up in industry pushback against the Obama administration’s supposed regulatory “War on Coal.”

So while little is being done about improving the safety of real-life miners, many Americans are being sold on the idea that coal-mine deaths can be a fun Halloween thrill.

The writer blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion and is a participant in The Post’s Local Blog Network.