The Widows of Harlan County
Neither was Stella Morris's husband Bud. He died at Harlan County's H and D mine after an underground coal car ran him over. "From the reports it said that it knocked his body in the bucket. The, you know, it, amputated one leg and crushed the other," she explains.
With the price of coal up dramatically, Stella Morris and the other widows say some mine operators in Harlan County are sacrificing safety for profit. They say they see indications of that in the official report on the accident.
In their report, investigators concluded that the coal car that ran over Bud Morris was overloaded, obstructing the driver's visibility. Their report also says that Bud Morris did not receive proper medical treatment from an owner of the mine, who had been trained as a medic.
"They didn't elevate his legs. They didn't do the tourniquets properly," Stella says.
"And your understanding is that if he'd been given a tourniquet it might've been different?" Simon asks.
"He would still be here today. He would've lost his legs but he would still be here today," she says.
Emergency medical personnel who talked to the investigators agree with Stella Morris. 60 Minutes tried to talk to the operator of the mine, but he refused. And although 60 Minutes made more than a hundred telephone calls, no one would let us into a mine in Harlan County. To see first-hand how mining can be so dangerous, Simon and the crew was allowed to visit a mine in neighboring Pike County, where no one has died.
Just a year ago, the tunnel the crew walked through was solid coal. The tunnel is five to seven feet high and twenty feet across. You can hear the coal's ominous snap, crackle and pop, caused by the enormous weight of the mountain above pressing down on the coal seam.
The tunnel is so long that miners don't walk to work. They squeeze into squat little rail cars called "man-trips" for a 20-minute commute that feels less like Disneyland and more like a ride into hell. On both sides of the tracks, the 60 Minutes team saw rocks that had fallen from the ceiling. The black coal walls of the tunnel had been sprayed with crushed limestone to control the amount of coal dust in the air; coal dust can fuel explosions. It also causes a fatal illness, black lung disease.
Some 1,400 feet underground, one finds a machine called the continuous miner. It claws its way through the mountain, mining coal and digging the tunnel at the same time.
It's a noisy operation, but the 60 Minutes team never felt unsafe. So much coal is moved so quickly in such confined spaces, however, that the team did feel that almost anything could happen at any time.
But the mine Simon visited does have a good safety record, and 60 Minutes noticed methane monitors showing low levels of the potentially dangerous gas.
In Harlan County, investigators will never know whether a methane reading was even taken before miners there used a blowtorch to deadly effect. But two women who were widowed in that accident say their husbands felt they were frequently asked to cut corners by mine management.
Mary Middleton says her husband had to work six, sometimes seven, days a week repairing broken equipment, usually with old parts.
Asked if she remembers her last conversation with Roy, Mary tells Simon, "I tried to get him to stay home. He was so tired. And I remember I was in the kitchen when I was getting his lunch ready. And I kept saying, 'Please just stay home.' I just begged him. And he wouldn't."
Mary Middleton and Priscilla Petra's husbands both died from carbon monoxide poisoning after the explosion. They were found wearing emergency breathing equipment. But state investigators concluded they had used less than 25 percent of their emergency oxygen supply.
It is unclear from the report why both men had plenty of oxygen and yet suffocated. Priscilla Petra believes the equipment must have been broken.
"I just know that if that had worked, he would of walked out of there. They weren't that far underground. They were under there, I'm not sure exactly how far. But they could of walked out of there had they had the oxygen," Priscilla says.
"I feel like these men are a dime a dozen in the coal operator's eyes. It's all in the product. 'We want the money. Get the coal out. Get the coal out. Get the coal out,'" Melissa Lee tells Simon.
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