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Mullen: Coal Country Chronicle



Joe Piccolo is a humble sort, with a soft and halting pattern of speech. He stepped to the microphone on the late afternoon of Aug. 19 at the Price City Peace Garden plaza in the heart of town, mindful of proper decorum.

Six men remained trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine in Huntington in neighboring Emery County. Three nights earlier, three men attempting to rescue the miners had been killed for their effort. But, on this day, borders between counties didn’t matter. “This isn’t about a city; this is about a whole community,” Piccolo, mayor of Price, told the crowd that had gathered for yet another of many fund-raisers for the miners and their families.

When Piccolo was a little boy, his own father died in a mine. He asked the crowd to keep all the miners in their thoughts and prayers. He paused. And then he added: “Now, let’s remember we’re also here today to have a good time. The people of Carbon and Emery counties know how to do that.”

For the past 18 days, between the grim news of buried working men and the crews trying to dig them out, we’ve heard and read plenty about the tough people of Carbon and Emery counties. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now: Coal Country spawns a special breed of human beings. It isn’t just their deep immigrant connection to the region. This is a place where people know boom and bust, the value of honest work and the continuum of life and death. Each day you drive deep into the guts of a mine may well be your last.

On Aug. 19, my husband and I arrived in Price for the fund-raiser about 40 minutes early. Marilyn Jewkes—whom neither of us had ever met—greeted us at the plaza like we were her favorite neighbors. Marilyn was hoisting boxes of bottled water and setting up grills where burly men would soon be cooking burgers and hot dogs in 96-degree heat. “We’re so glad you’re here,” she said.

Democratic State Sen. Mike Dmitrich was there, naturally. These are his people. He plays a fascinating role in Coal Country, working for corporate mining interests while simultaneously representing scores of miners. A few feet away, while local folks entertained the crowd by covering Johnny Cash, Faith Hill and other country favorites, another political veteran, Mike Dalpiaz, responded to questions about what might have happened to those men trapped 1,700 feet below ground.

Dalpiaz is vice president of United Mine Workers of America District 22 in Price. He’s also mayor of nearby Helper. Long ago, before going to work for the union, Dalpiaz worked for about seven years in the mines. He’s helped in several mine rescues.

Both Dmitrich and Dalpiaz feel certain of what contributed to the infamous “bumps” we keep hearing about as the cause of the Crandall Canyon mine collapse. Mine owner Bob Murray—the outspoken and ruddy Irishman whose gift of gab suddenly went south when the news went unequivocally bad—prefers to call them “seismic events.” He has specialized in making it sound like the earth was merely suffering indigestion.

But folks who know these mines know different. “Bob Murray was going to get every last bit of coal” from an operation that already is nearly mined out, Dalpiaz said. The support pillars in the mine, he said, have been scraped and shaved to the point of irrevocable weakness. The mine didn’t just spontaneously belch. It collapsed on top of itself, with corporate help in doing so.

“It’s just greed,” Dalpiaz said, shaking his head.

There were neighbors of the missing men, people who knew someone who knew someone involved in the disaster. You couldn’t shake coal dust in this part of the state without hitting someone involved. Almost to a person, people talked about “getting through this,” “surviving” and “pulling together like we always do.”

It’s the image of Coal Country we love, isn’t it? These are courageous types who know how to work hard, risk their lives daily and close ranks when necessary just so we can run the air conditioning at our leisure. When miners die, Carbon and Emery muddle through it, buck up, soldier on. Every cliché you can fathom applies.

And yet, isn’t it this hardscrabble image that also works against them? Miners and their families can wear this tough, fatalistic exterior to their disadvantage, too. Murray and his ilk proudly boast of keeping nonunion mines. No doubt it’s easier for him to cut benefits and scrimp on safety when people above ground rally, accept their lot and organize a fund-raiser to care for widows and children.

Their attitude in the face of tragedy is enviable all right. But it also nurtures continued callous treatment from the people who sign their paychecks. Grit and good sense can only get you so far. No one would think less of Coal Country folk if this once, they turned that energy outward and demanded more: more government attention, more safety and more than a few fund-raisers.

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