NEW PHOTOS: My friend Ken Murray, one of the great photographers in Appalachia, has sent photos of the terrible days after the explosion. Please see below. GV.
Shadowy figures around a bonfire, silence that screamed of fear.
It was Dec 30, 1970, and people were waiting, waiting for what they already knew.
The mine had blown up.
This was outside Hyden, a Kentucky town I had never heard of, until the office back in New York said I'd better get there, fast.
The next hours are a sad blur to me – a reforming sportswriter on my first month as a news reporter in Appalachia, trying to make sense of a coal-mine explosion.
I had taken the job offer from Gene Roberts, the legendary national editor at the NYT, and my wife and three small children had just moved to Louisville. On the next-to-last day of 1970 I drove down the Mountain Parkway for a feel-good, get-acquainted story, my first from the Appalachian Mountains.
After a few hours, I decided to call the office before heading back to Louisville.
The office told me a mine had blown up about an hour to the east, so I took off.
I found the mine and saw a woman walking on the chewed-up dirt road. I stopped my car and opened the passenger door and she got in.
We did not say a word. Her fear was palpable, as if she were thinking, "I am now a widow."
I let her out near the crowd outside the mine office. When I parked my car, I realized she had left a pair of gloves and a can of cat food.
The troopers herded reporters behind barriers so we would not intrude on families, but reporters always find ways. The one thing we knew was that there had been an explosion on the day shift at the Finley mine at Hurricane Creek.
As darkness fell, we knew that 39 miners had been in the drift mine – a horizonal opening into an Appalachian slope. One miner had been blown clear of the mine mouth and was alive; the rest were inside, and we pretty much got the point.
Family members clustered together, as if forming a protective huddle against outsiders. It felt like one of Goya's haunting "Disasters of War," on which he wrote: "This I have seen."
Gov. Louis Nunn arrived and informed the reporters that this is the kind of thing that happens once in a while in coal mining. Then he got on the helicopter and headed back to Frankfort.
Somehow, I scribbled a rudimentary story in my notepad and waited my turn for the one telephone on the mine wall. A trooper guarding the phone got itchy about my taking up time but I fended him off with shrugs and hand signals, and he let me finish. (I asked the office to call my wife and say I would not be home that night.)
The warm spell ended abruptly, and snow began to fall – a desolate scene, lit by bonfires. The Red Cross was giving sandwiches and drink to everybody.
My very supportive colleague in the Washington bureau, Ben Franklin, using his vast sources, dug up news that the non-union, "dog-hole" mine had been open less than a year with numerous citations but no major penalties or shutdowns.
I needed a place to stay that night, and Dr. Tim Lee Carter, who represented the district in Congress, suggested a motel just north of Harlan – “ a short ride from here,” he said.
Turned out to be 34 miles – 51 minutes, much longer in a snowstorm.
I made it up the hill to the motel and got a room but of course had no clothing, no shaving kit, no change of shoes. I was alive. I made some phone calls and went to sleep.
The next morning, there was nearly a foot of snow on Pine Mountain.
Heart in my mouth, I told myself that I was now a New York Times news reporter and I needed to get back to the story.
My car did not have snow tires.
I tried to gun it uphill but the car spun out, onto the shoulder – a good thing, since the other side of the road was facing downhill. Nobody without four-wheel drive and chains was going over Pine Mountain that day, so I worked the story via the motel phone, and bought a fresh shirt from a trucker who was also stranded and spent New Year’s Eve watching the snow fall.
On New Year’s Day, reinforced with snow tires, I made it over Pine Mountain and back to the mine, still feeling very much like an outsider. The sun was out, and reporters waited for more details.
The county judge – the top elected official in Kentucky counties – a sturdy guy named George Wooton -- was crouched over a bonfire, frying “coal-miner steaks” – bologna.
The owner of a neighboring mine was giving his opinion of what caused the explosion – words to the effect that “those miners made a big mistake.”
In one sequence, Judge Wooton calmly laid the frying pan alongside the fire, stood up, and with one swift punch, he cold-cocked the talkative mine owner, who was out for a few minutes, before slinking away, while Judge Wooton resumed frying bologna. (I found out the other day that Wooton had served under Patton during WW II; tough old guy lived to be 94.)
The next day, Ken Murray and I attended the first funeral for any of the miners, attended by other miners. Nobody was talking much, there was an air of let’s-get-it-done. I didn’t understand at the time, but later learned that the first man buried had been the “shot man” in the mine – the one who detonated the explosives.
In the days and months ahead, I covered hearings in Washington or Kentucky and watched Finley miners smirk and swagger as they testified they knew nothing, nothing, about the explosion.
It turned out that the “shot man” had regularly used the fast-working but dangerous primer cord, an outdoor device that was unsafe inside a mine, with its methane-gas deposits and live sparks – particularly in certain barometric conditions, like a warm day in December, with a snowstorm on the way.
The understanding of the dangers, the violation of law and common sense, was part of the ethic of miners. Mining was the best way to make a living in isolated Eastern Kentucky. In pillow talk, miners sometimes told their wives or girlfriends what was going at the mine, but other times they practiced a miner version of omertà.
I loved this part of my job, speaking up for Appalachia, whose coal was used to heat and cool much of the country, after the rubble had been dumped in the narrow valleys. (Even now, fools like Donald Trump blather about reviving the coal mines; the miners know better.)
In the days and months ahead, I returned to Hyden for hearings, interviewing some of the widows, like Edith Harris, smart and outspoken, who said the “rich widows” were, in a perverse way, envied for the insurance money they received.
For months afterward, the gloves and can of cat food from the woman on the mine road remained in my car; I could not bear to touch them.
To this day, when I think of the bonfires and the silent suffering in the wintry darkness, the very name “Hyden” gives me the shivers.
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--- A few months after the mine blew up, I ran into Judge Wooton in a coffee shop on the Mountain Parkway, and he raved about Loretta Lynn, who had come off the road to give a benefit for the miners’ families. I made a mental note to write about her for the NYT – which ultimately led to my helping Loretta write her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
* * *
---After the Hyden nightmare, as long as I worked as a roving reporter, I kept a bag in my car trunk, with clothes and a shaving kit and warm shoes.
-- (some of my articles)
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---Wonderful recent photo spread in the Courier-Journal:
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--Kentucky-born Tom T. Hall – “The Storyteller," whose work I admire -- visited Hyden early in 1971 and wrote a song about the disaster:
Some lady said, "They's worth more money now than when they's a-livin'. "
And I'll leave it there 'cause I suppose she told it pretty well
Kenneth Murray and I met at the Hyden mine, went to some funerals and press conferences and became friends for life. Ken has worked for newspapers in the Tri-Cities area of Virginia/Tennessee and has roamed the area, with an eye for the old ways that are still with us His books and artful photographs are easily found on line. These photos give a sense of those grim days.
Had a wonderful time on the #NYTReadalong Sunday with Sree Sreenivasan and Neil Parekh, talking about the Super Bowl and the great paper where I used to work. Here’s the link to my fun time. Thanks to all the nice people who sent messages while I was babbling. The Readalong is Sunday, 8:30-10:15 AM Eastern, and the link is available after that:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: