All it took was a spark to ignite an explosion that sent hurricane-force winds tearing through mines beneath the mountains near Montcoal in southern West Virginia.
The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, as it came to be known, killed 29 miners and injured another two on April 5, 2010, though it would be days before the friends and families of victims knew of the dreadful outcome with any degree of certainty.
Kim Lane was the wife of one of those victims. “Some days it feels like it has been ten years, but then, on other days, I can remember the events of that particular day so vividly—like it was yesterday,” says Kim, whose husband Rick died in the explosion.
Months earlier, the Lanes had been joking about their deaths. “He had said that if anything ever happened to him, that he wouldn’t want me to be alone, and I had joked back," she recalled.
"I had said that if I went first, I would come back and haunt any woman who tried to be with him—because we were so in love. We had been together for 25 years. We’d raised our son. We were very happily married.”
Something else unusual had happened, she added. Rick told her that he was putting in for a transfer, that he had some concerns about safety at the mine, and that “he wasn’t happy down there.”
“But because of the safety measures that were supposed to be intact,” she said, "he had told me not to worry, and I wasn’t as scared as I probably should have been.
"I felt like we had come so far with coal, like things had progressed to where I didn’t have much to worry about. But never in a million years—I never, never saw it coming.”
Lane, like anyone else in West Virginia, was no stranger to the dangers of mining. Mine explosions are a basic part of the state’s history, and it’s not unusual for residents to have a friend, neighbor, or family member missing a limb due to a mining accident.
Larger mine disasters, though—like that which killed 362 at Monongah in 1907, 174 at Eccles in 1914, or 78 in Farmington in 1968—appeared to be a thing of the past. At least until 2006, when an explosion killed 12 at the Sago Mine near Buckhannon, the fear of mine disasters had abated.
Prayers for miners have been daily habits in West Virginia for generations, though some miners needed fewer prayers than others. Kim’s grandfather had held one of the mine industry’s coveted jobs as an electrician at Tams, not far from the site of the 1914 Eccles disaster, also near the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Her uncle had been a coal miner as well. So had Rick’s father and his grandfather, too. At least until he went to jail for moonshining.
“Really, it was his grandmother who got caught with the liquor, but he took the fall for her so she didn’t have to go to jail,” Kim said. An uncle, also a coal miner, stepped up to help care for the family while his brother served time.
Even Kim’s son, Robby, had gone to work in the mines after high school. “He wanted to follow in his daddy’s footsteps,” Kim said. “It’s all he ever wanted to do.
"It’s in our gene pool, in our DNA. He just had that love for coal mining. And in our economy and our area of the country, it’s the best-paying job you can get, and when you want to provide for your family, that’s what you do.”
Robby continued working in the mines even after his father’s death—until a little over a year later when a jack smashed and destroyed some of his fingers, Kim said. “That’s when my daughter-in-law said ‘no more.’ ”
But the weekend before April 5, a Monday, had been a good one. The Lanes' prematurely-born grandson, Brody, had just gotten off oxygen, and the family celebrated by going to church.
“Brody was born three and a half months early. He was only nine months old when Rick died,” Kim said. “I can’t help but think, ‘Was this God’s plan that Brody got to be with his grandfather before he died?’
“But all of us, the entire family, had gone to church that Sunday, and it was just one of those good weekends. We bought a new furniture set for the front porch from Kmart.”
Kim woke early that Monday, as usual. “I always got up and packed his lunch and got his mining clothes out,” she said. “I didn’t have to leave for work until 7, but he left at 4:30.”
That morning, they had a discussion about taxes before they kissed goodbye, and Kim went back to sleep a little longer. They had hatched a plan to have an early dinner and then take care of taxes.
She drove to work in nearby Hinton, where she taught adult education. “I got home around 3:30, and I was in the kitchen cooking dinner,” she recalled. “Something just didn’t feel right, and then I started getting really strange phone calls.”
Friends and family were calling to see if she’d heard from Rick. He usually called on his way home, but he hadn’t on this occasion.
“Closer to 4:30, Rick’s father calls me and says he heard something over the scanner and that it would be a smart idea for me to call,” she said.
“I called the mines. A lady answered, and I identified myself, and she immediately said to me, ‘There has been an accident. You need to come to the training center at the mine site immediately.’ That’s when I dropped the phone and hit my knees.”
By the time she got outside, her son was racing into the driveway. “He’d already heard at work.”
The next five days were agonizing.
“Ten years later, I wish they had just been more honest with me, instead of making me feel the possibility that Rick could be found,” she said. “That first night, I sat down there all night long.” And the next night. And the next. And the next.
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin joined the waiting family members, hoping that a rescue crew might deliver a glimmer of hope. Kim would occasionally go home for a shower, a little rest—but, she says, it’s hard to rest when “you don’t know if someone you love is alive and trapped or dead and gone.”
While Kim and the others awaited news, townsfolk erected a make-shift memorial at a public park gazebo in nearby Whitesville. Friends and families burned candles and left pictures, mementos, and personal messages.
Two years later, it would become the site of a permanent memorial, made possible by contributions from the coal and coal support industries, private individuals, and local businesses.
When the first announcements came—early in the week of April 5—that some of the trapped miners were found dead, Kim’s heart sank.
“But now, looking back, I see that those family members, unfortunately, were the lucky ones, because they did get to see their husbands’ bodies,” she recalled.
“They did get to have that closure. They didn’t have to sit down there Monday through Friday, hearing things like there was the possibility that he could have gotten into a tent, that they hadn’t found his body yet, so that maybe that was a good sign.
"They made us think that things were not as bad as they really were. But they knew. Rick was one of the last bodies that they confirmed. On Friday, all 29 were gone. I never got to see his body, never got to have that closure.”
Lane admits she was “a total wreck” for six months after that. Then, something happened. She joined family members for a trip to Whitesville to participate in a memorial service. It took place at what would later become the Upper Big Branch Memorial.
“And something just told me, ‘it’s time for you to pick up your life and move on’,” Kim said.
She had been working toward her master's degree when the explosion happened, and then she quit, but in October she contacted the university and re-enrolled. “Rick would want me to finish,” she recalled, and by May, she had completed her degree.
Six months later, an old high school friend, John Reges, popped back into her life. “There is no book, no guidelines to tell anybody how long you have to mourn, how long you have to suffer. I had to find a happy again,” she said. John helped her do that.
“When they built the memorial, I wouldn’t go. I didn’t want to be there with all those people. I just didn’t feel comfortable. But one Saturday or Sunday after the dedication was over, John took me down there. He went with me, which helped me be able to move on, move forward.”
The roadside memorial—on Coal River Road in Whitesville, approximately five miles from the site of the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine—features a granite tribute to the miners, the 29 who died and two who were injured. It is usually the site of an annual wreath-laying ceremony on April 5.
“It’s an emotional experience every time I see it,” Kim said. “It’s their silhouettes. All their silhouettes. A couple are very close to replicating Rick’s stature. There they are, arm in arm, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. They worked together, and they died together.”
The memorial also includes green space, a bronze plaque dedicated to first responders, and an interpretive area in which three signs mounted on a limestone base explain the events that occurred from the moments after the explosion and through the completion of the recovery effort on April 13, 2010.
Visitors may also learn about the layout of the mine, information about mine safety, and a history of coal mining and mine disasters in the state. It opened in July of 2012.
A smaller memorial tribute rests in Beckley, the county seat of Raleigh County, near the courthouse. Though Whitesville is in Raleigh County, the Beckley monument is only a 20-minute drive from Kim’s home. It takes her more than an hour to reach the larger memorial in Whitesville, so she visits the Beckley memorial often, sometimes with Brody.
“I talk to him about his grandfather,” she said. “He’ll tell you that his Papaw died in a mine explosion.”
She admits that settlement funds awarded to her and to other members of Rick’s family have changed the way they live. “My life before was great,” she explained. “We worked our butts off, but we had anything and everything we wanted. That all changed, and now I have a different good life.”
She’s still haunted, though, by what she calls a lack of accountability. She was hoping that would change during the trial of Don Blankenship, who at the time of the explosion was the CEO of Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine.
“I went to days and days of Blankenship’s trial,” she said. “Nobody was ever honest with me about what happened, not 10 years ago, and no one ever did take accountability. They still haven’t.”
After that investigation, and more than six years after the explosion, Blankenship was convicted in federal court of one misdemeanor charge of violating federal mine safety standards related to the explosion.
Throughout the trial, he had maintained that federal inspectors forced operators at the mine to change its ventilation plan, which ultimately caused the explosion, then, to cover the agency’s wrongdoing, blamed him.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, painted a picture of unsafe conditions, and they used testimony from miners who said they were too afraid to speak out about safety violations for fear of being fired. They alleged Blankenship was a micro-manager who valued production over safety.
Blankenship served out his sentence at Taft Correctional Facility in California, concluding in May of 2017, then returned to West Virginia and made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2018.
Part of his platform called for the reformation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which continues to regulate and investigate mines.
In October of 2019, Blankenship announced he would seek the Constitution Party’s nomination as a candidate for the office of President of the United States.
Map showing the location of Montcoal, West Virginia
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