It was just after noon on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 1970, and the sun played hide and seek across lumpy Letcher County hills.
Lunch in Jenkins with Dave Zegeer was unpretentious, despite his imposing title. As the executive in charge of Bethlehem Steel’s sprawling regional coal operations, he oversaw four deep mines, four prep plants and more than 1,400 employees loading some 16,000 tons of coal each day.
I was only a year into my time as a coalfield reporter for The Courier Journal, and he was loading me with what I needed to know about coal. As we picked at the salad, nothing shadowed the pleasant conversation.
Almost 60 miles away in Leslie County, Kentucky, a blast rocketed through a non-United Mine Workers “doghole” operation run by the Finley brothers from Clay County, needlessly and heedlessly killing 38 miners.
One survivor, A.T. Collins, who knew why it happened, was blown outside the mine mouth.
The call from my boss at The Courier Journal interrupted our coffee: “Get to Leslie County. Now. A mine exploded on Hurricane Creek. Find it, and call me when you get there.”
It’s a handicap to be unprepared for the biggest story of your career. Although my father’s Pike County family owned and leased coal, and many of my mother’s Mingo County, West Virginia, relatives were UMW miners, including my grandfather, I was a Louisville South Ender just learning the difference between a brattice cloth and a roof bolt.
The trip across Letcher and Perry counties to the disaster site was a blur. Helpful bystanders directed me as I drove near. Cars parked up and down the hollow told me I was there.
Hour by hour a chill took hold. As the victims’ frightened families gathered, many were willing to talk. Some insisted the tragedy was no surprise, given the way the mine was run.
As my first deadline approached, a bystander helped me find a phone. I shivered as snow danced in the floodlights while I called in notes for the first edition, then drove home 13 miles to Hazard.
Recovery continued through the night, but I needed sleep.
I woke early, but a deep white blanket of snow covered the three hilly massifs between me and my assignment, and I had no four-wheel drive. My neighbor Paul Douglas Campbell called around town and found a coal operator willing to lend us something that could make the trip.
That’s the way things are, so much of the time, in Appalachia. People help. Except when they don’t.
As the emotional recovery operations continued, legendary Leslie County politician George Wooten, from the head of Hell for Certain, Kentucky, tried to quiet a man who wandered onto the scene and complained nonsensically that federal safety regulations were to blame for the disaster.
George was busy frying baloney for sandwiches and had no time for nonsense.
“Shut that up,” he told the loudmouth. “People are people hurtin’ here.”
The burly intruder didn’t listen to Wooten the first time, or the second, or the third.
Out of patience, George stepped away from the stove and cold-cocked the intruder, who was finally quiet as he lay unconscious. TV reporters unfamiliar with the region gawped.
When all the 38 dead miners were recovered, they were taken to the Hyden Elementary gymnasium and spread on the floor. The families came to sort through them, wandering among the shroud-covered bodies until they found a husband, a father, a son, a brother.
Some wept as they lifted the covering and recognized something familiar. Some sank down and cried out. Others were silent, and still as stone.
As I stood beside the gym floor, a widow stumbled back from a shroud and fell against me. I held her, and friends asked that I carry her outside to their car.
I don’t remember edging down the snow-clogged steps, but somewhere there’s a picture taken by my friend Tom Hardin. I kept that.
As I wandered back to the gym and scanned the awful scene, I promised myself that, if I could ever do something as a journalist to help prevent another such horror, I would.
Over the next four decades, my colleagues and I tried. The Hurricane Creek disaster taught me the most important thing I needed to know about coal mining: How fragile life and death are when miners go underground.
A lawyer friend, Steve Cawood, brought the survivor, A.T. Collins, to talk with me. Collins said illegal blasting was used that fateful day to quickly blow open space underground for a coal transfer point.
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That triggered the tragedy.
The names of the dead were a litany of Appalachian generations: Bentley, Bowling, Collins, Couch, Henson, Hoskins, Minton, Morgan, Sizemore, Spurlock and more.
They died because illegal explosives were used in a place where so much loose coal dust lay — undiluted by legally required rockdust. The blast lifted volatile black clouds into the air, turning passageways into blast tubes.
Today, there’s a memorial to those miners, which safety advocate Tony Oppegard urges you to see because it can be a teaching moment.
“Despite the enormity of the Hurricane Creek disaster and the untold suffering it caused so many families, there was no meaningful mine-safety legislation, either federal or state, enacted because of the disaster,” he has pointed out. “As is typical with American mine disasters, this disaster resulted in no jail sentences for the perpetrators and zero accountability.”
On the same trip to see the Hurricane Creek memorial you could drive on, to Letcher County, and see the Coal-Railroad Museum named for former Bethlehem Steel superintendent Zegeer, across from the old Jenkins High School.
His company’s strip mine work was controversial, but its underground accident rate under Zegeer declined dramatically. His example, and that set by others such as the Laviers family in Letcher County, showed things could be different.
Today, in all of Leslie County there are about 170 working miners. The Hurricane Creek operation alone employed 170 at the time of the tragedy. Across Appalachia, the history of coal is petering out.
What’s left is a legacy of profit. And loss.
David Hawpe, a former editor of The Courier Journal, where this column originally appeared, was the lead reporter 50 years ago covering the Hurricane Creek mine disaster.
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This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: The day 38 Kentucky coal miners died in an explosion