Correction to This Article
A Jan. 21 Magazine article incorrectly said that 350 rail cars could carry 4 million tons of coal. It would take about 40,000 typical cars, or 350 to 400 typical coal trains, to carry that amount.

Into the Darkness

By Joby Warrick
Sunday, January 21, 2007

DON BRAGG'S LAST BIRTHDAY WAS A NORMAL WORKING DAY for both him and Delorice Bragg, his wife of five years, but she had gone to unusual lengths to make it a memorable one. Earlier, with great effort, she had lugged home a large tool chest from Sears and hid it in the couple's garage. It was one Don had long admired, a Craftsman that stood about four feet tall and had lots of drawers for storage. When it was time for presents, his wife smiled and handed him a small box containing a set of keys.

"He asked, 'What are these keys for?' So I took him to the garage," Delorice Bragg remembers. "He was like a big kid."

He spent hours assembling the chest in the living room and lining the drawers with shelf paper. When the tool chest was finished, the couple carried it to his workshop in the garage, and they both stood back to admire it.

The next morning, January 19, 2006, with Delorice still sleeping after a long night shift as a hospital nurse, Don packed a lunch of sandwiches, snack cakes and a couple of Mountain Dews, and slipped two tins of Skoal snuff into his pocket. He kissed her goodbye and drove to work.

These had been good times for the Braggs, who, after weathering years of difficulty with previous jobs and marriages, had both arrived at a place of contentment. Don Israel Bragg, 33, known as "Rizzle" or "Riz" since childhood, had been recently rehired at the Aracoma Alma Mine, just outside Logan, W.Va., after being idled for more than year by a head injury. By all accounts, he liked his job and especially liked his crewmates on the evening shift, including Ellery Hatfield, known to everyone as Elvis.

The two men had become partners, working 10-hour days together on a machine known as a roof bolter, driving long metal spikes into the mine ceiling to keep it from collapsing. Their job often required them to work apart from others in their crew, so for long stretches they had only each other to talk to. They depended on each other and had grown close.

That January day, they were working in a remote area of the mine with 10 crewmates when a fire broke out. It was a small fire on an underground conveyor belt more than half a mile away, and normally it would have been quickly doused and forgotten. But someone had mistakenly shut off the main water valve, the first in a series of errors. Within minutes, the fire had consumed dozens of feet of conveyor belt and was spreading rapidly, feeding on coal dust, grease, rubber and a cold wind from the ventilation shaft. Soon the fire leapt to the coal seam itself, until the stone walls glowed orange like the inside of a blast furnace.

Miners near the fire quickly evacuated, but it was 30 minutes before word reached the remote alcove where Don and Elvis worked.

The crew boss called his men together, and, within minutes, all 12 climbed into a mantrip, a diesel-powered, rubber-wheeled vehicle that shuttles the workers through the mine tunnels. Around the men, the mine appeared as it always did: utterly dark and silent, except for the flicker of helmet lamps and the low rumble of the transport as it clattered through the shaft for what should have been a 40-minute ride to the surface.

"Everybody was really just joking, carrying on," Duane Vanover, one of the dozen, would later tell investigators, according to an official transcript. "We thought we were going to go down and put the fire out and just come back to work."

A World Without Sun

WHEN TRAGEDIES HAPPEN IN WEST VIRGINIA'S MINES -- AND USUALLY ONLY THEN -- people turn their attention briefly to coal miners and their world. And the overriding question the outsiders ask is this: Why would anyone work in such a place?

Over the last year, there has been much cause for wondering. Not since 1981 have so many men died in single year in the West Virginia mines. The year 2006 started with the Sago Mine explosion, a tragedy compounded when the 12 victims were briefly and erroneously reported to have been found alive. The fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine came two weeks later. By February 1, one month into the new year, the statewide death toll had climbed to 16, prompting Gov. Joe Manchin III to declare a "safety stand-down" that temporarily halted mining throughout the state. Eight more miners would die in accidents by the year's end.


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