"We Dig Coal: A Portrait of Three Women" shows what television can do when somebody cares.

The hour-long documentary about the first woman coal miner to die in a deep mine in this country--produced by Washingtonians Gerardine Wurzburg, Dorothy McGhee and Thomas C. Goodwin and directed by Wurzburg--will be aired tonight at 8:30 on WETA, Channel 26.

Usually, TV and other media simply won't tackle nonfiction narrative unless they can find someone articulate for protagonist or at least voice-over. And usually, articulate people use their skills to tell their own story, molding the truth to one degree or another.

"We Dig Coal" does it the hard way, reaching with passion, tact and love into a world of shy people who mumble and repeat themselves or just shrug and smile apologetically at that stranger, the camera. The telling is fragmented and slow, building from little patches: a sentence, a barroom dialogue, a long pan down the grim streets of a Pennsylvania coal town. Sometimes it is so slow that you wonder where it is going, if anywhere. But gradually the poignant, angry story comes through.

It's more than a picture of women miners and their struggles. It's a portrait of a way of life: the boarded-up stores, the tar paper houses, the faces puffy from the destructive American diet, the new appliances, the landscape itself, changing from slushy bleak winter to glowing summer, and every day, the trip down the mines, the dangerous, rough work five miles under the mountain, and always the insatiable demands of production, the black river of coal pouring relentlessly from the tip.

Even if you haven't been down in a mine or known small-town American working people, you recognize this film as absolutely true.

Two women, speaking on the job, in their homes, from their pickup trucks, tell about the three years it took them to get their jobs in the Rushton mine: the false report that they had back trouble (despite their clear X-rays), the lawsuits, the heel-dragging by practically the whole town.

A guy in a bar says, "It's just not a place for a woman, that's all. There's too many men out of work now." Women in the local sewing factory, where the pay is less than half the $8 an hour of the mines, attribute it to "this equal rights thing." A miner's wife says she almost wouldn't let her husband go to work because she thought the women would shower with the men.

"I like to feel feminine," she says. "I can't believe they're down there--but they are."

The husband of one woman miner, ashamed because he has been crippled by emphysema, tells us several times that he's always been the family wage earner. His wife says she is glad to be able to support the family.

"I didn't think it was a place for a woman to be," he replies. "I still don't." They smile at each other.

The young husband of Marilyn McCusker, the woman who was killed, tells how he quit to work full time building their new home, leaving her as the family breadwinner, and how his peers attacked him for this unconventional plan. Again and again we return to the local bar to hear the men mutter that they just don't like women in the mines, they just don't.

But at the end, when Marilyn's teammate Harry describes the accident, and her husband Alan, the tears coming down, tells how he heard the news, you sense a solidarity among these people, a closing of ranks in their sorrow, that no smoothly articulate narrator could ever get across.