Eight months after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the families of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives continue to live in grief, yet few have described their pain publicly.
"Here in southern West Virginia [we] tend to keep that stuff closely held," said Randolph McGraw, a lawyer in Beckley, W Va., who represents the families of six Upper Big Branch victims.
"[We] understand the risk … when something ultimately happens that is beyond the comprehension of people from other parts of the country," McGraw said.
But Gene Jones believes speaking out is critical, especially as public memory of the tragedy fades. Jones, 50, lost his identical twin Dean in the explosion.
"We're just going to be forgotten," Jones says, while mine disasters are "going to continue and continue and continue to go on. We need it fixed."
So Jones agreed to describe his family's ordeal, hoping that mine safety regulators, state and federal investigators, the mining industry, Congress and Americans in general will be reminded of the human cost of the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.
"They mourn for you," Jones notes, "and it's unbelievable how this nation came together. But if [we] don't speak out and continue to speak out, it's just forgotten."
A Reflection Of The Loss
Gene and Dean Jones were so close in their mother's womb doctors detected just a single heartbeat.
"I was 10 minutes older than Dean," Gene said. "It's like part of me is gone."
"I think about him every day," Gene said from a conference room at Appalachian Power in Beckley, where he works as an electrical engineer. His hazel eyes welled with tears. "So I work a lot not to think about it."
An obituary Gene wrote for his brother that includes an image of Dean, broadly smiling, sits on the table. If it wasn't for Dean's mustache, the twins would look exactly alike.
Still, when Gene looks in the mirror he sees his brother. "When people see me they see me and Dean," Gene adds, referring to Dean's widow Gina and their now 14-year-old son Kyle. "When Kyle sees me he sees his daddy some and when he listens to me talk, he probably thinks, 'Whoa, that's my dad!'"
On April 5, Dean Jones went four miles inside the Upper Big Branch mine to an area called Headgate 22. Dean was a section boss and mining engineer with 30 years underground. He and his crew of eight miners were using a continuous mining machine to dig the entryways or tunnels needed to get the area ready for mining.
Dean and Gene went to school together all the way through engineering studies. They shared three paper routes as kids and spoke in rapid conversations nobody else could understand. They both followed their late father Dallas into the mines and Dean loved it. But Gene couldn’t take the dusty, dark and confined conditions.
"These men were doing something that nobody else wanted to do because it's a scary, dangerous job," Gene says.
While Dean was underground late that afternoon, Gene sat on his porch in Beckley about 20 miles away. He had just mailed his tax return at the post office, and was blissfully unaware of the emergency calls that started pouring in.
When Gene's phone rang, his youngest sister Cheryl was on the line, frantic.
"They had a mine explosion at Upper Big Branch," she told her brother.
"You can't believe the feeling that went over me," Gene said. "It just scared me."
Dean's wife Gina and his sister Judy joined the miners' families gathering near the mine. Gene stayed with his 83-year-old mother to help her through the ordeal.
"It went on for days waiting on whether Dean was alive or not," Gene remembers. "It was just awful."
It was eerily familiar. Families gathered for vigils and stayed glued to television news. "It was just hard to believe that my family was looking at this, facing this," Gene says, "and wondering is my brother going to come out alive?"
Dean's decades of mining experience and his location in the mine bolstered the family's hope.
"I know that my brother was at the furthest point away from the explosion, a few hundred feet from the safety area" Judy told the Today show. "He would have felt the concussion. He would have felt the sucking of the air. He would have known that that was possibly fatal for them and he would have taken his men to the safety area."
The safety area is a rescue chamber stocked with food, water and oxygen. And even after rescue teams had found the bodies of most of the men on Dean's crew, there was hope that he and three others might be safe.
But shortly after midnight on April 10, five days after the blast, Judy and Gina burst through the door with the terrible news.
Gene describes the scene, sighing deeply between words and sentences.
"Gina was screaming and hollering, saying 'I couldn't bring him home. I just couldn't do it.' And then I knew he was gone," Gene remembers. "And it was just chaotic at the house, just crazy. And we all just broke down and cried."
Later, the Jones family was told that Dean was gone in an instant. The blast hit him face first and came back and hit him again as the concussive forces bounced around in the confined spaces underground.
As an engineer, Gene knows what those forces can do. "He was like a rag doll," Gene says. "Use your imagination." The condition of Dean's body, he suggests, is too horrible to describe.
Seeking A Safe Future
With the holidays coming, Gene anticipates gloomy family gatherings. "It's really hard to think about that," he says. "We never dreamed he would not be here. It's so unexpected. So now we're having to deal with it."
Gene's sadness turns to anger and frustration as he recalls Dean's complaints about safety problems at Upper Big Branch. Alice Peters, Dean's mother-in-law, testified in a congressional hearing in Beckley in May that Dean had been threatened with dismissal seven times because he resisted putting his crew in danger.
"Dean needed his job to make sure his son could get the medical care he needed," Peters testified. That's a reference to Kyle's cystic fibrosis and the health insurance Dean's job provided.
Peters also told the congressional committee that Dean's wife does not go out unless Peters is with her, "and then she just cries the entire time."
Kyle turned down his father's bed sheets at night, Gene notes, and sometimes crawled in with Dean so the two would be together before it was time to get up for work.
Gene considers his own son, who also works in a coal mine.
"I want to make sure that he comes home every day," he says. "And since this happened, I call my son every day at two o'clock or he calls me before he goes into the mine so I can hear his voice."
Gene reflects on the eight months since Dean Jones and 28 other brothers, fathers, sons and grandfathers died. Congress rejected mine safety reform, he says. The civil and criminal investigations of the Upper Big Branch explosion drag on. And he wonders about the value Massey Energy has placed on his brother's life. Departing CEO Don Blankenship, he notes, is getting a golden parachute worth at least $12 million -- four times the settlement the company offered to the Jones family.
"It's so sad to hear these crazy things," he says. The miners "were there every day risking their lives for that black coal, for us, surviving in this country."
Gene Jones pauses with a massive sigh. "And because of that," he continues, "I lost my brother."
West Virginia Public Broadcasting contributed to this report.
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