As miners scrambled for their lives, the fire touched off a massive coal dust explosion that ripped at speeds of up to 1,500 feet per second for seven miles underground. Twenty-nine men were beheaded, mutilated or asphyxiated.
The Upper Big Branch disaster, as it is popularly known, has become an important turning point in public opinion against the coal industry, as it should have. It was the worst such disaster in 40 years.
Coming at the heels of widespread outcries over the ravages of mountain-removal strip mining, Upper Big Branch has served as a cultural icon spotlighting such concerns as lax work safety and coal’s generous contribution to global warming. It has been the subject of books, documentary films and, now, a play.
The story has a clear-cut villain. He is Don Blankenship, the in-your-face former chief of Massey Energy who became the first top coal company official to be convicted of a crime for ignoring safety rules.
When convicted, he defiantly told a judge, “It’s important to me that everyone knows that I am not guilty of a crime.” He served a year in prison, only to set himself up as a populist politician. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2018 and now is seeking the presidency.
Blankenship may be on to something as he benefits from the politics of despair. Over the years, major coal disasters have typically brought tougher laws, but not in this case. No major legislation has been passed to toughen safety rules.
Since then, Central Appalachia mine deaths have been low, running about 11 per year, but that’s mainly because of reductions in coal production brought on by cheaper natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling. Coal once accounted for about 25 percent of the country’s electricity generation; now, it’s only 13 percent.
Coal’s demise is yet another blow to the eastern coal fields, especially in West Virginia, whose economy has also been ravaged by opioid addiction and the region’s remoteness.
“There is more hopelessness, [with] more despair and more drugs than ever before. No new legislation got passed. Nothing,” says Mari-Lynn Evans, the chief producer behind the 2016 documentary film “Blood on the Mountain” about coal’s impact on the Mountain State. It was nominated for an Emmy.
The fate of disaster survivors and the families of the dead are the themes of a new play in New York titled “Coal Country.”
Jessica Blank, who wrote the documentary play with her husband, Erik Jensen, said that after Upper Big Branch, “we recognized something in this. We were really emotionally compelled.”
The playwrights attended Blankenship’s 2016 trial in West Virginia and got to know families affected by the disaster. Many agreed to extensive interviews that were shaped into characters in the play.
During performances, which have been postponed because of the coronavirus, roots music star Steve Earle performs songs he wrote about the miners and their families. His album is scheduled for release in May. In early March, Blank and her husband brought some of the people related to Upper Big Branch to New York to see their work.
Efforts such as this are important to keep the memory of Upper Big Branch alive, although it does little to assuage the grief of people affected.
Many received part of a $210 million settlement, but the bitterness remains. I contacted one family that had spoken to me over a period of months in 2011 and 2012 for a book I wrote about Upper Big Branch. I called them for this piece, but they no longer wanted to talk about it.
There is no happy ending here. For evidence, look at what happened to Massey Energy, which was formerly based in Richmond. After Upper Big Branch, Blankenship stepped down and the firm was sold for $7 billion to the then-Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
The new owners sought good media attention by settling with families and by claiming they were really safety-conscious. But just a few years later, Alpha went through layoffs, went bankrupt and was bought by Tennessee-based Contura Energy.
As for Upper Big Branch, the mine was permanently sealed in 2012. It is marked by a memorial to the 29 dead men at one of its entrances.