Peg McEntee: The true heart of coal country

This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The sun was low in the southwest as dozens of people gathered to remember the 27 miners who died 25 years ago Saturday in the Wilberg mine fire.

They bowed their heads in prayer -- "we come to pay our sad tribute of love for our fallen brothers and sister" -- and everyone was given an evergreen sprig to lay on the base of the tall, black monument that bears the names of the dead.

And there were stories. John Borla, now stooped with age, knew Nanette Wheeler, the only woman to die that night. She'd come to Utah's coal country from West Virginia, he said, and ran a deli and arcade by day and worked the night shift at the mine.

Kids would crowd noisily into the arcade, and Borla asked Wheeler one day how she could stand it. She laughed, he said, and told him, "It's music to my ears. It pays the rent."

As the evening grew more frigid, as it must have done the night the mine fire started, Janice Carter gazed at the monument and wiped away her tears.

Her husband was Curtis Carter, an Idaho farm boy who came to Carbon County to care for family and ended up working in the Wilberg. "He wanted to go back to Idaho and buy a farm. That was his ultimate goal."

Now a nurse practitioner in Castleford, Idaho, Janice Carter has come back nearly every year since 1984.

"Some days it seems like yesterday," she said. "And sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago."

Later in the evening, everyone -- some who lost loved ones in the Crandall Canyon mine disaster -- went to the Emery High School auditorium. Twenty-seven miner's hard hats were arrayed before the stage, and when the lights were dimmed, people who had known the lost miners switched on the helmet lights to cast their distinctive beams around the hall.

Then the talk turned to mine safety. Kevin Stricklin, a top official in the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, read a letter from Joe Main, longtime UMWA safety and health specialist recently named to head the agency.

"This is a tragedy that should never have occurred," Main wrote. "The miners were caught deep in the mine without safety measures that should have been in place."

He might have said the same for Crandall Canyon, where nine men died in two implosions in August 2007. In both cases, mining plans that were approved by MSHA's Denver office were found to have been fatally flawed.

Now it's MSHA's job, and that of the union and the miners themselves, to do whatever is necessary to keep all American mines as safe as possible, regardless of politics or profits.

Stricklin made this promise: "We're committed to doing everything we can so that no one else has to face what you folks have endured for 25 years."

All of us who switch on our lights, courtesy of coal-powered power plants, must keep the pressure on state and federal authorities to keep those who toil for us safe from harm.

I'll never forget Janice Curtis, standing so close to the monument, her daughter's arm stroking her back as they mourned. They, and all the others whose loved ones work the mines, are the true heart of coal country.