Pain Persists For Mine Disaster Family
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.
"I want to report an emergency," said a calm Jonah Bowles, a Massey Energy safety official, when he reached West Virginia's Mine Industrial Rapid Response Line, a hotline for mining accidents. NPR obtained recordings of the hotline's calls in a West Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.
It was 3:39 p.m. and it took several minutes for the state official manning the hotline to record relatively trivial information before finally getting to the reason for the call.
"It is an air reversal on the beltline," Bowles reported.
"And, anybody injured?" Bowles is asked. "No," he says. "The mine is being evacuated at this time."
Thank you sir, you have a great day," Bowles is cheerfully told as the call ends.
According to recordings and logs obtained by NPR, it took another 50 minutes before the 911 emergency centers near the mine began getting calls about a major mining accident with injuries. .
The emergency radio traffic recorded by the Boone County E-911 Center became increasingly frantic. Shortly after 5 p.m., an unidentified emergency responder reports "the potential of 10 deceased currently, maybe in excess of 30 total injured."
"We're still getting miners to the surface," the radio crackles. "It's a total disaster, control. I need all the resources you can get me."
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.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It's been more than eight months since a massive explosion killed 29 workers at Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia. The April incident is still under investigation.
Victims' families continue to struggle with the loss but few have discussed their grief publicly.
BLOCK: Gene Jones lost his identical twin, Dean, in the explosion and he believes silence hides the terrible cost of the tragedy. That's why he agreed to share his story with NPR's Howard Berkes, as part of our ongoing investigation of the mine disaster.
HOWARD BERKES: There's an obituary lying on the table between us. It includes a photograph, and 50-year-old Gene Jones would be staring down at an image of himself, if not for the mustache on his brother's face.
Mr. GENE JONES: I just think about him every day. 'Cause, you know, he was part of me. It's like part of me is gone. 'Cause he was my twin. We were identical twins. I was 10 minutes older than Dean. So it's like - it's just not the same.
BERKES: Gene also had a mustache until it started growing gray. But even without it, when he looks in the mirror and when he stands before Dean's wife and son, they see the face of the coal miner, husband, father and brother who went four miles inside the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5th.
(Soundbite of telephone call)
Unidentified Man #1: Mine Industrial rapid response line. May I help you?
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, I want to report an emergency.
BERKES: When the emergency calls began that afternoon, Gene was 20 miles away on his porch in Beckley, West Virginia. He was just back from the post office from sending off his tax returns, happy to have that burden lifted, and blissfully unaware of frantic dispatchers.
(Soundbite of dispatcher)
Unidentified Man #3: Looks like I've got a potential (unintelligible) currently maybe in excess of 30 total injured. We're still (unintelligible) miners to the surface; it's a total disaster, Control. I need all the resources you can give me.
BERKES: Gene was sitting on the steps reading a magazine when his phone rang and when his sister Cheryl sounded frantic.
Mr. JONES: And I said, well, do you know where Dean's at? And at that time nobody knew. It went on for days, waiting on whether Dean was alive or not. It was just awful.
BERKES: There were two Jones family vigils, sister Judy and Dean's wife, Gina, joined the miners' families near the mine. Gene stayed with his mother to help her through the ordeal. Judy phoned in updates and even appeared on NBC's "Today Show," describing the family's persistent hope.
Ms. JUDY JONES: My brother was a trained mining engineer. He has 30 years of mining experience. He loves his men. And I know that my brother was at the furtherest point away from the explosion, a few hundred feet away from the safety area. 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. And I believe that my brother is there.
BERKES: The safety area is a rescue chamber with food, water and oxygen. Dean was a section boss working nearby with a crew of eight miners. They were in area known as Headgate 22, and they were digging parallel entryways or tunnels next to a massive block of coal.
Rescuers worked for four days to reach them. And even after the bodies of most of the crew were found, officials told the families and reporters Dean and three others might be safe.
Unidentified Man #4: The rescue teams have taken four breathing apparatuses with them, in case we - in the best scenario, we would find four survivors. We'll put oxygen masks on the survivors and bring them out.
BERKES: Gene tried to keep his mother calm through the phone calls from Judy and the live televised reports.
Mr. JONES: We're in the same situation some other people's been in that I've watched on TV. It was just hard to believe that my family and myself was looking at this, facing this, and wondering is my brother going to come out? Am I going to get to see him again?
BERKES: Gene and Dean shared three paper routes when they were kids. They were in sync so much, their conversations were incomprehensible to others. They went through grade school, high school and engineering school together. And they both went underground at first, following their dad into the mines.
Dean loved it but Gene didn't. He's been on the surface for decades, working for Appalachian Power. As Gene talks about those 50 years with Dean, his hazel eyes water and his sighs deepen.
Mr. JONES: Now you got your holidays coming, enjoy your family and just be thankful that we can all get together and we'll all heal. Guess what? Dean is not here. And it's really hard to think about that. We never dreamed that he would not be here. It's so unexpected. So now we're having to deal with it.
BERKES: Dean complained to his family about safety problems at Upper Big Branch. His mother-in-law told Congress he'd been threatened with dismissal seven times because he resisted putting his men in danger. But he couldn't leave, she said, because he couldn't risk losing health insurance. Dean's 14-year-old son, Kyle, has cystic fibrosis.
Kyle turned down his daddy's bed sheets at night, and often climbed in with him so he'd be with Dean before dawn when it was time to go to work. The boy and his mother are struggling, Gene says, as he describes the night of terrible news.
Mr. JONES: My sister and Dean's wife came through the door. And Gina was screaming and a hollering, saying I couldn't bring him home. I just couldn't do it. And I knew then that he was gone. And it was just chaotic at the house, just crazy. And we just all broke down and cried.
BERKES: The official announcement came in a broadcast news conference shortly after midnight, April 10th.
Unidentified Man #5: We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for. We have accounted for four miners that had been unaccounted for. We have a total 29 brave miners who we're recovering at this time.
BERKES: The Jones family was told that Dean was gone in an instant, that 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 did to his brother. He was like a rag doll, he says. Use your imagination, it's too horrible to describe.
Most of the families who lost men at Upper Big Branch are private about their suffering. But Gene Jones says speaking out is the right thing to do.
Mr. JONES: Because if not, we're just going to be forgotten. And it's going to continue and continue and continue to go on. We need it fixed, 'cause I've got a son that's in the coal mines and I want to make sure he comes home every day. As a matter of fact, since this happened I call my son every day at 2:00, or he calls me before he goes to enter the coal mine, so I can hear his voice.
BERKES: Gene's voice grows frustrated and angry as he cites the failure of Congress last week to enact mine safety reform. The failure of state and federal regulators to protect his brother, and the value Massey Energy placed on his brother's life.
The owner of the Upper Big Branch mine gave departing CEO Don Blankenship a $12 million golden parachute. That's four times the settlement offered to the Jones family.
It's so sad, Gene adds, to hear these crazy things.
Mr. JONES: These men were doing something that somebody else didn't want to do, 'cause it was a scary, dangerous job. They were there every day risking their lives for that black coal for us, surviving in this country. And because of that I lost my brother.
BERKES: There's a Jones family legend about Gene and Dean in their mother's womb. Doctors didn't know they were twins because they detected just one heartbeat. We were that close, Gene says, and now there's a single heartbeat again.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
BLOCK: There is more about Gene and Dean Jones, and an interactive map of the mine and its victims at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.