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Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, A Year Later: Family Can't Move On

Upper Big Branch Mine

VICKI SMITH   04/ 3/11 10:33 AM ET   AP

NAOMA, W.Va. — Gary Quarles kneels on his living room carpet and unrolls the 4-foot-long map that he's studied so many times, trying to understand why his son died in the Upper Big Branch mine.

As a coal miner with 34 years underground, Quarles explains how things worked before the Massey Energy mine in Montcoal exploded a year ago Tuesday.

He sees the pace of the longwall cutting machine, the places it was forced to slow down. And he sees where his 33-year-old son Gary Wayne Quarles was working with crewmates Grover Skeens and Joel Price, and their supervisor, Rick Lane.

They are identified on paper as Victims 9-12.

And they're not where they were supposed to be.

They were, Gary Quarles believes, running for their lives, trying to escape after something went wrong near the end of their 10 1/2-hour shift.

But no matter how often he looks at the map, no matter how many meetings he attends or how many investigators he talks to, he still has questions.

The explosion killed 29 men in all. It was the deadliest U.S. coal mining accident since 1970, and it remains the target of civil and criminal investigations. But a year later, there are still questions.

Federal investigators believe the explosion started when teeth on the mining machine Gary Wayne had been running created a spark that ignited a small amount of methane gas. They theorize highly explosive coal dust that had been allowed to accumulate in the mine mixed with the methane to create a blast so powerful it turned corners and rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal, packing the power to kill men more than a mile away.

Virginia-based Massey denies any wrongdoing, blaming a sudden inundation of natural gas that overwhelmed all safety systems.

Gary Quarles doesn't believe the machine's teeth or his son's actions had anything to do with the blast. Anytime the cutting drum digs into sandstone, he says, "what you got is a ring of fire, no matter if you got dull bits or new bits."

Quarles talks with people he considers the best longwall operators in the country, and one told him air flow would have been critical: With enough fresh air, methane isn't a problem. With enough air, a "pop-up" doesn't become a disaster.

So Quarles attends the occasional meetings with Massey or with Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators, awaiting answers. And he goes to counseling instead of work, his old life now on hold.

Gary Wayne was his best friend and his only child, conceived when Gary's wife, Patty, was just 15.

"He made us grow up really fast, and he turned us into who we are," she says.

Patty, a homemaker, still keeps an immaculate house. But she's just going through the motions.

She rocks slightly in a recliner, dark hair still wet from a shower she didn't bother getting until midafternoon, and describes her life now: "You go to bed and you get up and you go back to bed."

Gary nods. He recalls the day a relative told him to pull himself together, to get out and have a little fun.

"There's no fun to be done now," he says, eyes filling with tears. "It's like the life been sucked right out of me."

___

For most folks in this southern West Virginia valley, life rolls on like the Big Coal River.

Men still go underground morning, afternoon and night, sending tons of the earth's sparkling black riches back up to be hauled away by truck and train. At the end of their shifts they lean over the beds of their pickups, smoking, talking, maybe drinking a beer. Savoring life on the surface.

From Comfort to Clear Creek, the same small diners serve the same steady customers. In struggling towns that prosperity has passed by, storefronts stand empty.

People don't talk much about the 29 who died at Upper Big Branch, but tiny tributes are everywhere – in the decals on truck windows and the logos on T-shirts, in the prayer requests for their families at Sunday church services, and at the small memorial in Whitesville, initially assembled along a chain link fence and now protected in a gazebo.

Karen Canterbury recently drove an hour from Madison to pay her respects there and to offer a gift from her son Marques for the anniversary – a black and white sketch featuring 29 crosses and a single, brilliant red cardinal.

The Canterburys didn't know any of the miners. They are kin nonetheless.

"I'm a coal miner's daughter," Karen says, "and I know what it's like to be raised by a coal miner, the struggles and hardships that my dad had to go through to feed four children."

A few miles up the road at Flint's Hardware in Sylvester, Betty Taylor still spends her days outfitting miners with gear. Some customers are gone, though. Ricky Workman was in a week before the blast that killed him.

"It's something you kind of try to blank out of your mind, but then you see friends ..." Taylor says, voice trailing off. "I don't think people want to really forget."

___

For 34 years, Gary Quarles worked underground. Like his son, his last day on the job was April 5, 2010.

Since then, the thought of returning to Massey's Parker Peerless mine has become a paralyzing combination of fear, heartbreak and guilt. He no longer has it in him to continue what he thought would be a lifelong career.

"It lays on my mind because I've always worked, I've always provided. And I kind of wonder how things is going to go down the road, how hard things is gonna be," he says.

He talks to a psychiatrist about his anxiety and tries to accept reassurance that it's natural.

Besides, he has another job now: In private meetings with the other victims' families, he has emerged as an unofficial spokesman, along with friend Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex was also killed. Mullins, who quit Upper Big Branch three years before the blast to work for Patriot Coal Corp., hasn't returned to work, either.

Together, the two men testified at a congressional hearing about how Massey handled safety.

Mullins told the panel Massey's mandate was to run coal at any cost. Quarles talked about how at Massey mines, people on the surface would alert the men underground when a federal inspector arrived.

And yet, Quarles is conflicted.

Massey is treating him well – sending him a check every two weeks even though he doesn't report for duty.

Massey, however, may soon cease to exist. Alpha Natural Resources of Abingdon, Va., is trying to buy the company for $7.1 billion in a deal expected to close later this year.

When that happens, will Gary Quarles still have a paycheck?

Quarles figures he might be offered the chance to return, but he doesn't think Massey would want him.

"They always preach safety and never do it," he says, "and I believe I'd make them walk the line."

___

Gary Wayne was a simple man devoted to his children, Rabekka and Trevor. They took summer vacations to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and fished the New River. He was a hard-core hunter of raccoons, turkey and wild boar. The heads of deer and black bear still line the walls of his childhood bedroom.

His parents' living room was always full of photos, but now it's a shrine, the frames crowded by a triangle of glass and wood holding the dusty American flag that covered Gary Wayne as he was carried from the mine.

Gary and Patty still imagine him lumbering across the yard from his doublewide, hollering through their front door after work, sitting down to dinner with his dad. But the weekend before the explosion is the last of the happy memories.

It was Good Friday, and they were taking their grandchildren to Chili's, nearly an hour away in Beckley. Gary Wayne took the day off to tag along.

He'd been working as much overtime as he could, sending paychecks to his ex-wife, "keeping just enough to get by," his mother says.

He seldom had money for groceries or gas, let alone extras. But he'd been hanging out with some younger friends who had taken him to Hooters, trying to interest him in other women. Over dinner, Gary Wayne said they'd been after him to dress nicer.

When they were done eating, he asked Patty if she had enough cash to buy him some shoes.

She handed him $100, and he picked out a new pair of Nikes. He wore them out with guys the next night.

Ten days later, they were buried with him.

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Filed by Adam J. Rose  |