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A Sad Ritual: The Mine Disaster Vigil

Citizens of Tallmansville, W.Va., hold a candlelight vigil for the miners trapped in the Sago Mine explosion.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Citizens of Tallmansville, W.Va., hold a candlelight vigil for the miners trapped in the Sago Mine explosion.

Last week, millions of people got a rare glimpse of a grim Appalachian ritual: the mine disaster vigil. The deaths in West Virginia were sadly familiar to me. It was the third mine disaster I've covered as a reporter.

The story unfolded in the tiny community of Sago -- really little more than a group of houses along a river. Hundreds of friends and family jammed the local Baptist church for nearly two days, waiting to learn the fate of 13 miners trapped underground by an explosion.

They spread out along the pews, eating pizza and singing hymns. Outside, it was below 40 degrees. But inside the sanctuary, it was sweltering. Ceiling fans spun and air conditioners roared to keep the temperature down. Hanging on the wall behind the pulpit was a rug depicting the Last Supper.

The vigil ended as most do: in sorrow. All but one miner died.

I covered my first coal mine vigil 15 years ago at the Big Mama Mine in Knox County, Kentucky. Back then, I was a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, based in a small town called Hazard. I'd lived there for nearly a year, but had no sense of what miners and their families go through until this disaster.

At the Big Mama, miners worked a layer of coal just twenty-four inches thick. That meant they spent their days in a cramped tunnel about two feet high, working on their backs, bellies or knees.

The disaster came after several men set explosives into one side of a pillar of coal. They drove to the other side of the pillar for protection, then set off the charge. But the mine was poorly excavated and the maps inaccurate. When the men set off the charge, they were actually only ten feet away from the explosives.

The blast was overwhelming. A fire ball roared up the mine tunnel. The force hurled a five-ton, steel mine car 60 feet.

Last week's disaster in West Virginia drew more than 100 reporters and at least a half-dozen satellite trucks. But most vigils are like the one at the Big Mama: quiet, intimate affairs. Family members waited outside the mine's opening - or mouth -- with fellow coal miners, pacing and hanging their heads.

After several days, workers brought the men's remains to the surface -- in plastic buckets. Two of three had been obliterated by the explosion. Most family members had already left: they didn't need to see this.

The job of identifying the remains fell to David Wolf, a one-eyed, forensic anthropologist with the state medical examiner's office. I knew David from other stories. His was a lonely job, so I helped out.

Together, we poured the buckets of coal onto screens. As we shook the screens, the coal slipped away, revealing bits of teeth and shreds of clothing. There was also a musky smell, the odor of rotting flesh.

The next April, I covered a roof collapse in Knott County. Again, family gathered in front of the mine. Friends brought food.

When disaster strikes, everyone prays their family members won't be among the dead. One of the people who came that day was a woman named Ollie Profitt. Her son, Claude, worked at the mine, but had escaped injury.

"God blessed our family," she said as tears welled up in her eyes.

I stayed on, waiting for the earth to give up its dead. As darkness came and the temperature fell, a couple who lived nearby invited me in for dinner. We sat and chatted about past mine disasters by the warm glow of a coal burning stove. The lady of the house fried me a cheese burger on a cast iron skillet.

There was a sense of shared sorrow -- even with an outsider like me.

The names of mine disasters still echo in the hills of Appalachia like a gun shots. In southeastern Kentucky, if someone says, "Scotia," you know they are referring to the Scotia Coal Company mine. That is where methane gas explosions killed 26 men nearly three decades ago.

Last week in West Virginia, people talked of "Farmington" -- the community where 78 miners died from an explosion in 1968. The bodies of 19 of those miners are still entombed there.

The deaths at Farmington helped spur Congress to pass the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act in 1969. Mines are safer today, but disasters and vigils continue.

Now, add to the long list of tragedies: Sago.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.