The road at night from Whitesville to Rock Creek braids the river and the rails through quiet, dim towns. There’s an eerie sense of abandonment for most of the way, and then you reach Montcoal, lighting up the sky like an empty, industrial city. A large pipeline crosses over the road, leading to a maze of more pipes, beltlines, and silos, all held high in the air on rusted scaffolding and lit every few feet. These lead to the tipple—where coal is crushed, sorted, and loaded into trucks and trains—a towering mass of corrugated metal, roughly soldered at its corners.
I tried to imagine the place on the day of the explosion. A friend, Chuck Nelson, described it to me clearly: at four in the afternoon, ambulances raced past his house, and he knew something was wrong. He took his car toward Whitesville and stopped at the north entrance to the mine. Police closed off the area as he arrived, so he watched from the road. He had three friends in Upper Big Branch. One he had seen just that morning at a funeral—he worked with the man in a union mine for 15 years, before they both found jobs with Massey. Chuck quit to speak out against the company’s mining practices. (“Your job is the most important thing,” he remembers hearing on the first day of work. “You mine coal. The company will take care of the rest.”) His friend kept working and made it out of the mine alive after the explosion. The other two showed up dead within a few days.
In the following weeks, Chuck’s phone rang constantly with calls from reporters. They needed names of miners who would tell the truth about working conditions at Upper Big Branch. But Chuck refused. “I’ve worked for Massey, and I know how they operate,” he said. “If a miner talks, he’ll lose his job. Then you’ve got your story, and he ain’t got nothing.” Chuck knew better than anyone: whistleblowing was a big risk for a miner with kids to feed. The company, at times, offered compensation for its errors—three million dollars to each family that lost a husband or son in the explosion—but otherwise, it pinched pennies. It was the way things worked in the Valley. And little had changed, it seemed, in the year I had been away.
When I first came to Rock Creek in the winter of 2009, the snow turned to rain each day and refroze overnight. The house was small for six people—it would’ve been small for four—with a kitchen, a bathroom, two bunkrooms, and a living room that fit a couch and a loveseat. I slept with a wool hat pulled down over my eyes; the house was not insulated, and the plastic taped over the cracked windowpanes did little to keep out the draft. Once awake, I’d make my way to the woodstove, a rusted, flimsy box in the center of the living room, connected to a pipe protruding from a crudely cut hole in the ceiling.
My housemates and I spent most of the winter beside the stove, bent toward the fire over our laptops. We were all activists of some sort: one a videographer for the documentary Coal Country; another, a liberal arts graduate with a degree in physics who stayed up nights engineering roadblocks and banner drops along the stripped ridges. One boy, Glen, had left home at 14 and found his way to Appalachia from New York, via New Orleans. He did whatever needed doing. Julia, like myself, had just arrived as an Americorps Vista, certain she’d live in the Valley the rest of her life. Noerpel had been in Rock Creek enough years to tell me anything about the Valley—the hollows to explore and those to avoid, the height of the mountain’s coal seams, the wind potential along the highest ridges, the reasons creeks ran orange and wells turned black, and the name of every person who passed through our door.
We had a few visitors those first, cold weeks: Officer Smith, a cordial man who had arrested two of my housemates for locking themselves to mining machinery, and Charles Ballard, who came, on average, twice a day. Ballard would drive his spitting blue Sidekick across the bridge, pass the house as though he didn’t intend to stop, and then abruptly accelerate in reverse to halt beside the stoop. If we noticed and came to the door, Ballard would crane his neck out the window, a cigarette propped between his thin curled lips, and yell, “Where’s everybody at?” Otherwise he’d skulk in and see if we noticed. Sometimes when I was washing dishes, I would turn to find Ballard behind me, holding a handful of my hair to his knife blade. He would pull back and cackle, his mouth suddenly gaping, teeth lost to chewing tobacco and the mine foreman who punched them out years ago. Then he would mutter something I couldn’t hear, and I would respond routinely: “No smoking in the house, Charles,” or “Where have you been?”
When the wood smoke got nauseatingly thick, I’d venture out—sometimes to Lloyd’s, the convenience store across the bridge, or up the narrow road through Rock Creek Hollow, or down the street to visit Ed Wiley. He lived at the road’s dead end, where the river bowed against a steep, rocky cliff.
I had heard of Wiley before I came to Rock Creek. In 2004, his granddaughter started coming home from Marsh Fork Elementary School with respiratory problems, and he immediately knew why. The school sits across the river from a preparation plant where coal is washed and loaded into eastbound trains. Dust from coal trucks floats into the hallways, settling on lockers, desks, and lunch plates. Above the school is the Marsh Fork Impoundment, a 2.8 billion-gallon lake containing sludge—the mixture of chemicals, water, and sediments left after washing the coal. While lakes like these have been known to break, Massey plans to blast within 100 feet of the precarious impoundment. Wiley appealed to the state to move the school, and when the state didn’t listen, he walked to Washington, D.C. But it took the mine explosion, nearly three years after his visit to Congress, to draw the Annenberg Foundation to the area. Donors noticed the school’s proximity to the coal facility and offered $2.5 million as long as the state and Massey paid the rest.
I went to visit Wiley one evening when my housemates had gone out. He was laid out on the couch when I came in, watching The Last Samurai. He pushed himself upright and waved for me to sit down. Wiley had a youthful physique despite all the years he had worked in the mines. But that night he looked tired, his sharp eyes sunken.
“Good movie,” he said, and I sat down to watch Tom Cruise fend off four armed ninjas. We both were quiet the rest of the film. When it ended, I stood to go.
“How’s Marsh Fork?” I said.
“The same, I reckon,” said Wiley. He went into the kitchen, and I could hear him rustling around in the freezer. He came out holding a white grocery bag, heavy with bear meat. “You kids cook this up,” he said.
I thanked him, slipped on my boots, and headed down the dark road, past a boy who raced his four-wheeler alone, and into the house.