Six of the coal miners were buried yesterday. The rest will be buried early this week.
I resisted the temptation to put up a post on this after that horrible night last week. It was appropriate to allow the families and small rural communities to bury their dead in peace. And I didn't want to get into, in the words of one blogger I sometimes read, 'Katrina-izing' the tragedy, and jumping to conclusions (we saw enough of where doing that can lead in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday.)
Now, however, as the dead are finally being buried, it is time to begin asking some questions. Questions that will be answered, hopefully by the probe. And no, what happened with the miscommunication isn't one of the questions-- in a day when everyone is wired and has a cell phone, and everyone was desperate for any hint of information, what happened was tragic, but almost predictable. And ultimately, the bizarre horror of that night killed no one.
What did kill twelve men was an explosion. The explosion itself appears to have killed only one of the men, but it trapped the rest deep under ground in a space with limited oxygen, while filling the air with lethal amounts of carbon monoxide. Initial reports say it was caused by lightning. I have to admit that I am a little skeptical about that, the more I think about it. I have only been across the West Virginia panhandle, and that was at night on a bus, so I don't know a great deal about the weather there. But the explosion happened at around six thirty in the morning as crews were re-entering the mine after the long holiday weekend. Now, I suppose that it is possible that there could be a lightning strike at six thirty in the morning, but I've never lived anywhere that happens very often, especially in the winter. And even if it did, the problem is that the gases and coal dust that ignited had been allowed to accumulate in the mine to the point where they could explode.
Now that raises the first question: In the year 2005, why isn't there a monitoring system in place that can alert people to potentially unsafe levels of gases or coal dust before anyone goes in? They were able to monitor the levels of these gases before sending in rescuers an agonizing 11 hours after the explosion (a time frame that is bitterly ironic now that we know that the rescuers were taking their first steps inside just about the same time that the last miners were losing consciousness). So why couldn't the same equipment be used before the explosion to determine technologically that an explosion was possible?
A bigger issue is this: The mine in question has been cited numerous times for safety violations. Although it changed hands in November, there is no indication that any action was taken to address this ongoing record of citations. This raises three questions:
1. Why was action not taken by the owners of the mine to bring it into compliance? We all heard the CEO of the mining company, Bennett Hatfield, give what was clearly a sincere statement of regret and sorrow over the loss of the employees. But he had a chance to possibly avoid it by fixing the safety violations, and he did not.
2. Why, after violation after violation after violation, did the government not take action to close down the mine? What good are citations if no one follows up on them, or action happens so rarely and after so long an interval, that no one fears the penalty? I've blogged recently about how the lack of accountability on the part of employers leads to more and more hiring of undocumented workers, and this situation is no different.
3. The mine was a non-union operation. Would a union have helped prevent this? You bet your sweet patootie they would have. Unions go to court and fight aggressively to have regulations enforced and safety improvements made, and the 'penalty' problem I mentioned in the second question doesn't exist, because employers fear legal action by the union and/or strikes much more than they fear the relative inaction by the government. Three years ago, the union in Pennsylvania (remember that?) pushed for everything from a speedy rescue operation to overtime pay for the trapped men.
As I said, there will be plenty of time to investigate this, but now that the men are being buried, the best service the rest of us can do (in addition to continuing to pray for the community, and for Randall McCloy) is to speak out as often as necessary to make sure that a full investigation is forthcoming and that nothing is swept under the rug.