“I’m just taken aback by this,” author Homer Hickam Jr. told CNN on Tuesday when asked his reaction to the news that 25 coal miners had died in Montcoal, W.Va., in the nation’s deadliest underground mining disaster since 1984. “A methane explosion of this size in a modern American coal mine? This should not happen. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”
Monday afternoon’s explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine was so powerful it turned “steel rails into pretzels,” said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who also termed the event a “horrific explosion of mammoth proportions.”
Hickam, a native of Coalwood, W.Va., is a former NASA engineer whose novel Rocket Boys: A Memoir was the basis for the highly-acclaimed 1999 film October Sky. Like many other residents of the Central Appalachian coalfields, he is having a hard time understanding how 25 miners could be killed while working for one of the country’s largest coal companies in one of its biggest mines. (At presstime, rescue workers and family members still held faint hope that four miners might have survived the blast.)
Hickam and others are right to wonder how such an explosive amount of methane could be allowed to accumulate in a modern American coal mine just three years and three months after 12 miners lost their lives in a methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine, which is also located in southern West Virginia.
“I thought we were beyond this in this country,” Hickam told CNN in reference to changes the Sago disaster brought to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. “The mining industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, if not the world. We had this accident in Sago in 2006 where we lost a dozen miners. We put in all kinds of safety precautions since then. We even inspect these mines more heavily, yet now we’ve maybe lost more than twice the number of miners we lost at Sago.”
Hickam’s short interview with CNN represented some of the best commentary we heard during the hours immediately after the explosion inside the Upper Big Branch mine.
We agree strongly with Hickam’s assertion that the latest coal mine explosion and the terrible loss of life it has caused “is just unacceptable in the American mining industry.”