Google “Scotia Mine Disaster Kentucky,” and you will find words that evoke a host of emotions: Justice denied, Scotia widows, big daddy coal, blood-stained coal and MSHA fact sheet.
On March 9, 1976, 15 miners died in an explosion in Letcher County, Kentucky. Two days later 11 members of a mine rescue team sent in to search for those workers died in a second explosion.
With the announcement this week by President Obama of even more rigid EPA regulations, the mining of coal will be less and less profitable, and some coal operators will be seeking additional ways to cut the labor force and the cost of bringing coal to market. An NPR report of the holdings of Jim Justice, West Virginia’s richest man who owns 70 active coal mines with a big stack of safety violations, confirms the dangers in the industry.
A few weeks ago I was once again at the site of the Scotia Mine disaster visiting artist Barbara Church, owner of the Ovenfork Mercantile. I decided to broach the subject of the explosions. Church knows about mining accidents: When she was 17 with a two-week-old son, her husband was electrocuted in a coal mine at Sunshine, Kentucky.
Of the Scotia disaster, she says, “I was 22 at the time, pregnant with my third child and was living just below the mine entrance, one-eighth of a mile, around the curve. I had been in Harlan shopping that day. You know you always remember where you were when something traumatic like this happens, like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK.
“Police was there; cars along the highway, both directions, waiting for word. I had a friend, Ethel Sturgill, 18 or 19, and pregnant. Her husband was killed.
“My cousin’s husband, a mine inspector, James Sturgill, died in the second explosion.
“Deaths in that second explosion could have been avoided. The rescuers should have waited until the methane cleared, didn’t know enough details. There was a hope for rescue when the team went in. It was not about retrieving the dead.”
Geraldine McKnight-King was the wife of one of the 15 miners who died in that first explosion on March 9, 1976. She says, “After all these years, it still bothers me and my hands start shaking. We were just housewives cleaning floors and taking care of children.”
She learned of the explosion from her mother who called from the hospital in Harlan to say, “There’s been a mine explosion at Scotia, and they’re clearing hospital beds.”
McKnight-King says she called the mine office, and the person who answered the phone hung up on her. “Cars were parked up and down the road and there was an officer there, holding back the crowd. Someone handed him a sheet of paper. My husband’s name was on the list: Roy Edward McKnight.
“Sitting in the bathhouse waiting for word, not for any second did I think he would not come out of that mine. I knew he’d come out. He was “Big John,” played football for Cumberland High School where he was known as “Big Sack,” enjoyed his work, a happy man. He was 6’ 7”, a Vietnam survivor, 30 years old.”
She continues, “I like to think that I’m a good person, but there was such hatred for that company. You can’t explain death to a 5-year-old. I told our son Davis, ‘Daddy got hurt, and he’s not coming home.’
“We women got together to file a lawsuit and hired Gerald M. Stern, an attorney for victims of the Buffalo Creek disaster.
“When we met Stern in Harlan, his intention was to tell us that there were no grounds for a suit, that all that had been discovered in the investigation could not be mentioned in the lawsuit and that Scotia was not a legal part of Blue Diamond but was a contractor. One of the widows, Libby Gibbs, had a check from Blue Diamond with four boxes on it. One box was labeled Scotia. That check changed everything.
“The judge in Pikeville, H. David Hermansdorfer, decided we had no case and threw it out. He felt Blue Diamond was as white as driven snow. The Sixth Circuit overrode him and we won. There was a financial settlement for the widows and the children, but nobody apologized. We really didn’t win because there were no headlines saying ‘Blue Diamond Did This.’ As widows what we had in common was being housewives, our husbands were dead, our world was destroyed. There was nothing to build on: It was gone. We couldn’t rebuild our lives because our lives were in the Scotia Mine.
“When I asked Blue Diamond mine owner, Gordon Bonnyman, how he could let that mine get so dangerous, he responded, ‘I fly in my private plane. That’s dangerous. It’s the same thing.’”
McKnight-King says,”There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of my husband. Any time the kids do little things, I think of what he would say, would do. He can do nothing because of Blue Diamond.
“Every time a man goes into a mine, he deserves to come out. I want my grandchildren to breathe air that is clean, but I want men to have a job to go to.”
The report of the Congressional inquiry on the Scotia Mine indicated, “It was a mine which … placed production and profit before the health and safety of its miners.”
Needed change sometimes occurs only at the loss of human life, and this was the case at Scotia. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 addressed important issues, and MSHA was moved from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Labor.
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