Zack Harold

freelance journalist


This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on April 07, 2010. 

WHITESVILLE – Ed Runyon, 83, walked to the flag pole in his front yard shortly before noon Tuesday and raised his American flag for the first time this year. He tied it off at half-staff.

Although he didn’t know any of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the retired miner said the incident troubles him deeply.

“It’s a sad thing,” Runyon said.

Runyon worked as a miner for 34 years, suffering two broken fingers and a broken toe during his career. The Korean War veteran said he counts himself lucky he didn’t see any explosions, although he was working underground when several men died over the years.

He said he knew something was wrong at the mine, located a few miles from his house, when he saw a slew of police cars and fire trucks speeding along W.Va. 3 to the scene Monday afternoon.

“We knew something happened,” Runyon said. “Then it got to us pretty quick.”

Many in this Boone County town of about 500 people expressed sadness and shock.

Marlena Adkins, 45, said her husband, Robert, works at the mine and could have easily been among the victims had the company not switched workers’ shifts.

Robert now works the same hours as the victims did – a six day-on, three day-off schedule. His first day off work was Monday.

“That would’ve been the shift he would’ve been on,” Marlena said.

She said her husband was hit hard by the tragedy.

“He was pretty shook up,” she said. “He said, ‘This may do me in. I may retire.’ ”

Tobie Hilderbrand, pastor at the Marsh Fork Worship Center in nearby Eunice, said his stepson, Kory Ferrell, 20, worked on the same shift until Massey transferred him a couple of weeks ago.

“All of a sudden they needed some guys at the other mine,” he said.

Hilderbrand said Kory was initially upset about the move because of the co-workers he had become friends with. Obviously, the family is now thankful.

“The Lord’s really worked on our behalf on that,” Hilderbrand said.

But the family did not escape the tragedy. Hilderbrand said his wife’s uncle, Ricky Workman, was one of the miners killed.

“It’s hit home pretty hard,” he said.

Hilderbrand’s church opened its doors to those needing refreshments and prayer.

The church also changed its front sign to read, “Pray for our miners.”

Someone later affixed a small paper note to the sign: “With deep sympathy and concern for all miners who have lost their lives and all who are still trapped – (from) students and faculty at Marshall University.”

Church member Billy Pettry said the church would remain open “as long as anybody needs us.”

Pettry, a retired miner with black lung, said he once worked with many of the victims and some of their fathers. He was close to Workman, a former classmate and basketball teammate.

“We were like brothers there for a long time,” he said.

Mike Gordon and other members of the New Life Assembly in Pettus are keeping their lights on, too. Gordon said he didn’t leave the church Monday night and he was still there at mid-morning Tuesday.

“We’ll be here all day, I know,” he said. “If we’re not, somebody will be.”

Gordon said about 80 percent of men in the church, including Pastor Gary Williams, are coal miners. He works at the Pine Ridge Mine in Prenter.

“It could’ve been us instead of them,” Gordon said.

He said no family members have passed through the church, but plenty of rescue workers and journalists have.

“They came in off and on all night,” he said.

Gordon said the church doesn’t have a radio or TV on hand to keep updated with the news but is monitoring a police scanner. He said church members get most of their news from people returning from the mines.

“The information we’re getting is only what people are getting and bringing back,” he said.

He said the church members were deeply saddened when they heard of the miners who had lost their lives but are praying for the four miners still trapped inside.

“We’ve got hope,” Gordon said.

The Forgotten Disease

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

For a time, it seemed black lung was headed the way of smallpox and polio. When Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, about 35 percent of coal miners with 25 or more years on the job were diagnosed with coal miners’ pneumoconiosis, the disease’s official name. But once the federal government established dust limits for mines, black lung rates began a steady decline that would last for three decades. By 1999, only 5 percent of workers with 25 or more years of service had the disease.

Then the numbers stopped dropping. “It kind of looks like we hit a brick wall,” says Anita Wolfe, public health advisor at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “For some reason we started noticing the little lines on the graph were starting to go up again. Now they’re back to about 10 percent.”

The folks at NIOSH were perplexed. “This should be a disease that is gone,” Wolfe says. “This should be a disease we should not be seeing anymore.” The agency created a mobile testing unit, visiting different mining communities around the country for in-depth medical screenings and interviews with miners. Their findings were worrisome. New black lung patients were younger than in the past, and the disease seemed to progress faster than it once did. “Instead of it taking 20 years to go from (the early to late stage), some of them were progressing in as little as seven years,” Wolfe says.

Although researchers have not pinpointed the exact causes, there are a few possible explanations for the recent resurgence of black lung and the disease’s newfound aggressiveness. The coal seams mined today are thinner than in the past, so machines cut into lots of rock as well as coal, and rock dust can be even worse for miners’ lungs than coal dust. NIOSH is also seeing more black lung cases in mines with fewer numbers of employees— operations that often have older, dustier equipment and do not have robust safety programs like those at larger mines. Employees also tend to work longer hours than in the past and, as a result, inhale more dust.

Black lung is a brutally simple sickness. “It’s not rocket science,” Wolfe says. “The way you get black lung disease is, you breathe in coal dust.” The body recognizes this dust as a foreign object and tries to expel it by coughing. Much of the dust is unmoved, however. This remaining dust irritates the lungs and creates scar tissue, which inhibits the lungs’ capacity to turn oxygen into carbon dioxide.

Patients sometimes do not show symptoms during the disease’s earliest stages, although the damage can be picked up on x-rays. Scar tissue continues to build up as things progress, however, eventually leading to late-stage black lung known as “progressive massive fibrosis.” By this stage the lungs are almost completely covered in fibrous scar tissue. Patients usually rely on bottled oxygen to help them breathe. Once the disease reaches this final stage, black lung will only continue to grow worse. “There’s no drug that can help this,” says NIOSH epidemiologist Cara Halldin. Some late-stage patients get lung transplants. although the survival rates for that procedure are not promising.

The only thing that will stop the progression of the disease is to stop the patients’ exposure to coal dust while they are still in the disease’s earliest stages. There are measures mines can take to limit miners’ exposure to dust, including curtains, airflow control systems, and water sprayers on machines. But Halldin says sometimes, if a piece of equipment breaks or the production has fallen behind schedule, mines don’t want to take the time for these safety precautions.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also offers guaranteed transfers to miners diagnosed with black lung, allowing them to move from the dustiest parts of an operation to somewhere with less exposure. Only about 10 percent of eligible workers use the transfer orders. “We don’t know for sure why that is,” Wolfe says. Anecdotally, Wolfe has heard some workers don’t use the transfer orders because they like their jobs or are worried they will be fired or passed over for promotions, even though federal law protects transferred miners against workplace discrimination.

Some workers also seem to hold onto their transfer order until they are ready to retire, in hopes of working their last few years in an easier assignment. Of course, this completely undermines the idea behind the transfer program. By continuing to breathe harmful coal dust, these diagnosed miners have only helped their ailment to advance.

Wolfe says this is the biggest challenge to combating black lung: making sure employers and employees understand the disease and take appropriate precautions to prevent it, or at least slow its progression. She says mines constantly talk about safety to prevent major catastrophes but there is little focus on preventing disease, even though conditions like black lung are more deadly in the long run.

Many young miners don’t even believe the disease is still around. “They look at me with a blank face and say ‘We didn’t think you could get that anymore,’” Wolfe says. They do not realize every breath brings them closer to their own diagnosis.

Boone town still dealing with explosion that killed 11 men

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Nov. 6, 2013.

NELLIS, W.Va. — William Gunnoe noticed his safety lamp had stopped burning.

Gunnoe, a section foreman at the Nellis No. 3 Mine in the Boone County with 19 years’ experience, knew a darkened lamp meant one of two things. Either the device was broken, or the air inside the mine had filled with methane.

The Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 to honoring the 11 victims of the Nellis No. 3 Mine explosion. Community members will gather at the monument today for a special memorial service.

The Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 to honoring the 11 victims of the Nellis No. 3 Mine explosion.

He figured the lamp was just broken, and asked his supply crew to return to the surface for another one. As a precaution, Gunnoe decided the men on his section would not blast any more coal, at least until he could rule out the methane.

The supply crew got in their electric man trip and headed aboveground.

At the same time, 5-year-old Harold Baldwin was sitting on a wall near his grandmother’s house, waiting on the evening train to pass. He went out to the wall every evening, to wave at the conductor and fireman.

“I was sitting out there, when that mine explosion happened,” Baldwin, now 75, said.

His grandmother ran out to the wall, scooped him up and carried him inside.

“She said ‘Henry, this is bad,'” Baldwin remembers. “Because the whistle just kept blowing and blowing and blowing. She knew it was real bad.”

Gunnoe had been wrong about the methane.

About 6:55 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1943, a spark from an electric mine car ignited the air inside American Rolling Mill Company’s coal mine in Nellis, killing Gunnoe, his brother, Lester, and seven other men.

William Barker, 59, and Lawrence Vincent, 25, survived the initial blast but later died at McMillan Hospital in Charleston.

Although Baldwin was only a child, he remembers a black cloud descending on Nellis after the blast.

“It was like a morgue. There was nobody out,” he said. “They were in a daze. It just ripped the guts right out of the community.”

Nellis, in some ways, is still dealing with the tragedy.

Like many coal communities, the tiny town still bears the markings of its mid-century heyday. The coal camp houses are still there, along with the company store (which is now a cash and carry) and the community church that since 2004 has served as museum.

The church-turned-museum contains artifacts of coal camp life — typewriters, telephones, cash registers and company store scrip — but also reminders of the tragedy. There are news clippings from the time, along with coal company reports on the blast, typewritten on onionskin paper.

“People bring things to us all the time,” said Judy McComas, secretary and treasurer of the Boone County Historic Landmark Commission. “We don’t say no.”

In one glass case are the personal effects of Lester Gunnoe, donated by his son, Arnett: a wooden pipe, leather belt, shaving razor, his pocket-sized mining certificate and Social Security Card, and two nickels Gunnoe had in his pocket at the time of the blast.

The heat of the explosion fused the coins together, back-to-front.

Down the hill from the church, the Boone County Commission erected a monument in 1997 honoring the 11 victims of the explosion, which remains Boone County’s single worst coal mining disaster.

Members of the community, along with students from the nearby Nellis Elementary School, will gather at the memorial at 1 p.m. today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.

The service will include songs from students at Nellis Elementary, comments from Boone County Commissioner Mickey Brown and Board of Education member Joe Tagliente, a letter from Rep. Nick Rahall and other tributes.

McComas said several men who worked at the Nellis No. 3 mine after the explosion are expected to attend, along with Bill Workman, son of one of the victims.

Harold Baldwin won’t be in attendance. He’s in Oakland, Neb. now, where he’s lived and worked since leaving the Air Force in the 1960s.

He still subscribes to the Coal Valley News, however, and still visits Nellis whenever he’s in West Virginia…even though he admits he’d never live there again.

“You can never tell where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” he said, choking back tears.