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Mining Town Rises in Anger

After Boy Is Killed by Boulder, Va. Residents Cite Disregard for Safety

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page B01


It hurled like a cannonball into Dennis and Cindy Davidson's house, right through the wall of the bedroom and onto the bed where 3-year-old Jeremy was sleeping.

The huge boulder continued its path, crashing through a closet before finally stopping at the foot of 8-year-old Zachary's bed. Zachary would be fine. Jeremy was crushed to death.

A bulldozer operator widening a road at a strip mining operation atop Black Mountain had unknowingly dislodged the half-ton boulder that August night. And now, more than four months later, Jeremy's death is still being felt across the coal mines of southwestern Virginia.

For many residents, the toddler's death has come to symbolize what they consider the companies' and the state's callous disregard for their safety.

"Since the child got killed, it's sort of like when the towers got bombed and the country came together," said Carl "Pete" Ramey, a coal miner turned anti-strip-mining activist. "The death of an innocent child that had nothing to do with what's going on has brought us together. I think a lot of people feel guilty they didn't do something before."

In this corner of the state, more than 400 miles southwest of Washington, officials have scrambled to respond to the anger and grief that has led residents on protest marches through town. A special prosecutor is investigating whether to bring criminal charges. The state mining agency has fined the mining company $15,000 -- the legal maximum -- and proposed changes in the law. In a report, the state agency quoted philosopher George Santayana's dictum about those who ignore history being doomed to repeat it and vowed, "This tragic accident will not be forgotten."

The Davidsons, who have filed a $26.5 million lawsuit against the mining operators, are hoping that Jeremy will be remembered as a catalyst for change.

"I keep asking Cindy, 'Why couldn't we have had his bed sitting against another wall?' " Dennis Davidson said in an interview as his wife sat beside him, wiping away tears. "We had no idea when we put him to bed that a stinking 1,000-pound boulder could come crashing through the house.

"I don't want my son's death to be in vain. I want to see changes in the laws so that something this stupid and careless doesn't happen again."

Even in a region riddled with monuments to mining disasters and fatalities, such a tragedy had never happened before.

The town of Appalachia has thrived with coal, then withered as its heyday has passed. More than one in four of the town's 1,800 residents live below the poverty line.

The hollows outside town, like the one where the Davidsons lived, were bucolic and peaceful places until recently. About five years ago, surface mining started moving from distant mountaintops to the hills directly above Appalachia, reflecting a dramatic upswing in the fortunes of coal.

Coal produces more than half the electricity generated in the United States, and expanding economies in this country and China have created a huge demand for electricity. With natural gas prices soaring, coal is more competitive.

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