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The ghosts of West Virginia




 

 

Now, I used to think my daddy
was a black man

With scrip enough to buy the
company store.

Oh, but now he goes to town
with empty pockets,

And Lord, his face is white as
February snow.

— “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” by Jean Ritchie

There are moments in 60-yearold Frank Ardis Jr.’s life when he suddenly feels like a 10-year-old boy again, the one who prayed hard that his daddy would walk through the door as he always did, dirty but safe.

The memory of how that prayer turned out sneaks up on him like a ghost that can still fill his heart with the chill of bad news. The kind of news that changes everything.

That ghost showed up in 1984, when 27 miners were killed in Orangeville, Utah. Showed up in 2006, too, when 12 miners died in Sago, W.Va.

The ghost found him again on April 5, when he heard that an explosion had killed at least two dozen men, probably more, in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

“You hear the words ‘methane explosion’ and your mind races,” he said last week. “You can’t help but think, ‘No, not that. Not that again.’”

Fifty years later, miners still are dying the same way his father did March 8, 1960, when he and 17 others were killed in an explosion in Holden, W.Va.

“I was sitting in class,” Ardis said. “My teacher’s husband was a mine supervisor, and he came in to talk to her. Then she told the class, ‘You need to go home now. There’s been an accident at the mine.’”

On his walk home, Ardis didn’t know whether his father was alive or dead. “When I saw all those people in the house with my mother, I knew something was wrong.”

The people of Montcoal are Ardis’s people, too.

“I know what they’re going through,” he said.

These days, the majority of miner injuries and deaths happen at nonunion mines. The equation is painfully simple: No union, no voice. No backup documentation of reported problems, no pressure for follow-ups.

Nonunion miners keep their mouths shut, too. When you don’t have union protection, you don’t question practices or procedures, especially where the coal mine is the only job in town.

Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine is nonunion and has a long history of trouble. Last year alone, federal inspectors ordered the mine closed for serious violations 29 times, including multiple instances of improper methane ventilation. In January, inspectors cited the mine for two violations that produced two of the heftiest fines in the mine’s history.

Those problems reportedly were fixed. But the mine’s operator, Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., continued to pile up citations right up until the day of the blast — that time inadequate escape route maps and an improper splice of electrical cable.

A former adviser to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Tony Oppegard, told The Associated Press that had regulators determined that the mine had a pattern of violations, “maybe 25 lives or more would have been saved.”

Frank Ardis hears that and shakes his head. He’s a municipal court judge in Mansfield, Ohio, now, but he always will be the youngest son of a coal miner who lost his life only a year before he could retire.

“He was 14 when he came here from Italy to work in the mines,” Ardis said. “He was 64 when he was killed. I still remember the way he looked after work. A white person comes home from the mines looking like a black person. He’d take a shower and there was Dad again. It was hard work, but it was the only work he ever knew.”

After his father died, Ardis’s mother moved with her three sons to join their eldest brother in Mansfield, which was far enough from the coal mines to change the trajectory of their lives.

“If any good came out of my father’s death, it was that we all got out,” he said. “None of us worked in the mines.”

His mother lived for 30 more years. She never remarried. Never again mentioned the mines.

Some things you have to try to forget.

Until the ghost comes calling.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist for The
Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the
author of two books from Random
House, “Life Happens” and “… and
His Lovely Wife.”

©2010 Creators

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