Just after Powell Harmon implored his family to love Jesus, he wrote in broken, heart-felt script, “My boys, never work in the mines.” Sometime later, deep in the Fraterville, Tennessee, mine he gasped his last breath. It was over a century ago, yet that advice resonates.
At least one of the miners killed following Monday's explosion in Sago, West Virginia, had told loved ones months or years earlier that he expected to die in the mines, according to CNN. Doubtlessly, a few in East Tennessee understand that sense of doom, for ours is a land more storied than most in mining lore.
The May 19, 1902 Fraterville Mine Disaster near Coal Creek—now Lake City--was the worst or second worst mining disaster in the history of the United States at the time, depending on how you counted the dead, for about 20 more bodies were dragged from the mine than the 184 listed as having entered.
Less than a decade later, on Dec. 9, 1911, the adjoining Cross Mountain Mine blew up, killing 84 more miners. My grandfather, C.I. Williams, helped bring the bodies out. Every house along the tracks rang with the cries of those in mourning.
Last Oct. 15, I joined descendants of those killed in that mine disaster in a walking tour of the graveyards, monuments, hillside church and other sites pertinent to the disasters in Briceville and Fraterville, once the most populous communities in Anderson County.
In Briceville I stood before the earth and stone-covered portal to the Cross Mountain Mine and watched as descendants shed tears for that tragedy. Photographs were passed around showing the scene as it looked 94 years ago when hundreds lined the hillsides surrounding the mine's opening. You could almost hear their prayers and cries. They finally found something to take heart in, as five men survived the disaster. Some called that a miracle.
On Tuesday night, nearly a century later, things remained eerily the same, as TV personality Anderson Cooper proclaimed with great conviction, “It's a miracle.” Standing before a small white hillside church in Sago, West Virginia he reveled in the word—soon to be revealed as a cruel and lingering lie--that 12 miners had survived the Sago Mine disaster.
“Twelve alive!” went the cry. “Twelve alive,” and no doubt thousands of Americans were moved by the frail joy revealed in those voices. “It's a miracle,” they said, weeping.
“It's a miracle,” Cooper repeated, and a young female reporter standing next to him echoed that conventional wisdom, “Yes, it's a miracle.”
The mantra continued for hours. The governor of West Virginia called it a miracle, mine spokesmen used the word, community leaders likewise. The most haunting voices were those of friends and family members, who dwelt in bliss for a spell. “Thank you Jesus, it's a miracle,” they proclaimed. Later they lit candles and sang hymns about heaven.
Who could blame them? Coalmining is an enterprise more earthbound than most. Screeching metal, the whirr of saw blades, blasts from dynamite, bites of shovels digging into coal, aching bones, muscle and sinew, tracks of tires mired in coal dust and clay. The world is seldom revealed as more material than this, and seldom more treacherous.
As I drifted off to sleep Tuesday, believing 12 had survived, I thought of the one presumed dead and said to myself, if the survival of those coal miners is a miracle, then what is the accident itself? Think what you will, I'm no cynic. I subscribe to the notion that the universe itself is an unfolding miracle—or at least a grand mystery. My life and yours on this planet are amazing to contemplate, almost like a dream the universe dreams. But it is a dream revealed in material and energy, those twins of the physical realm.
Back when Anderson Cooper was known as Chris Whittle's news correspondent—visible mostly to students in high schools that subscribed to his Channel One broadcasts—I interviewed Cooper for this newspaper. I had my doubts about holding high school audiences captive for the commercials that accompanied Channel One, but I had to admire the bravery and determination Cooper displayed as he gathered his news. I once saw a tape of him dodging bullets behind a mud wall in a Central Asian country. Back then, he never prattled on about miracles, and his audience was better served for that journalistic reserve.
Those waiting at the little white church may be forgiven such delusions. Still yet, it's Powell Harmon's last advice to his sons that resonates most true.