LEE HOCHBERG: At dawn last week at the Peabody Coal Mine near Farmington, West Virginia, dozens of coal miners surfaced from their all-night work shifts 700 feet beneath the ground.
The tragedies of last month's two West Virginia mining disasters-- the explosion at the Sago Mine which killed 12, and the fire at the Alma Mine that killed two-- weigh heavily here.
Fourth generation miner Bob Fletcher:
BOB FLETCHER: My wife asks me if it's safe in my mine, and you know, a lot of guys that I work with have said that, too, their wives come and say "Is it safe at your mine?" It puts it in your head, you know, and makes you wonder, is it safe?
TIM FLEEMAN: It had a big effect on me.
LEE HOCHBERG: Tim Fleeman had driven 125 miles to the fire at Alma to try to rescue the doomed miners.
TIM FLEEMAN: All coal miners need to see what I've seen at Alma -- the smoke, the heat, the despair.
LEE HOCHBERG: This is a region with a gruesome history of coal mining accidents. Ten miles away in Monongah, West Virginia, the nation's worst coal mining accident killed 362 men and boys in 1907. The town didn't have enough caskets to deal with the casualties.
In 1968, a tremendous explosion at the nearby Farmington Number Nine Mine killed 78. It drew attention as the first TV-age mine tragedy, according to former coal miner, now West Virginia University History Professor, Paul Rakes.
PAUL RAKES: This was the first time that a major disaster was seen by the nation as a community. People could actually see, not only the tearful families, but they could see smoke boiling out of the portal of the mine. And they're saying, this is 1968, "We're going to the moon and we can't make coal mining safer?"
LEE HOCHBERG: Historically, it's been these disasters that have led to safety advancements. The 1907 catastrophe prompted formation of the Federal Bureau of Mines, which studied mine safety. The Farmington accident led to the 1969 creation of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. It gave the federal government for the first time enforcement power over the mines. Mines did get safer. MSHA strengthened standards and increased federal mine inspections.
U.S. Mine deaths, nearly 3,000 a year in the early 1900s and about 200 per year in 1969, dropped to 22 last year. The question many West Virginians are asking is whether these new disasters will also trigger reform.
Joe Megna, at the age of 16, lost his father to the Farmington blast. The body and those of 18 others remains entombed in the mine. Megna today, himself a miner, is drawn regularly to a moving, windswept memorial the community erected atop the sealed mine. He's sought solace in the belief that his father's death at least prompted safer mines.
JOE MEGNA: It made me feel that he didn't die in vain, that with these laws, stiffer laws, this would never happen again.
LEE HOCHBERG: Now he wonders if that's true.
JOE MEGNA: I cannot believe that this is just happening again.
LEE HOCHBERG: At the mineworkers union hall in nearby Fairmont, miners and their wives were also shaken by the back-to-back tragedies.
Thirty-three-year miner Randy Duckworth:
RANDY DUCKWORTH: It struck me, it took me sort of like the bombing of the Twin Towers. It caught me off guard.
LEE HOCHBERG: Jim Anderson's brother was in the Sago Mine when it exploded, but he managed to escape. Anderson didn't want to talk about it, but his wife, Martha, did.
MARTHA ANDERSON: My grandpa always told me, you don't watch him go out of sight, because they may never come back. So I don't watch him go out of sight. I go back to the house, and I pray for him to be safe.
And after the Sago disaster, I pray a little bit more. You never know when you going to get a call, and that just scares me to death -- thinking that I'll get a call. I just pray that I never do.
LEE HOCHBERG: They cried, but none of the wives want their husbands to leave the coal business. The industry is booming, generating more than half of the nation's electricity.
Scott Lepka doesn't know what else he'd do.
SCOTT LEPKA: Really there's not much else around here, I mean, unless you want to work in a store or a gas station or something like that. There's just not much out here. Mining is the biggest thing, probably the best money.
LEE HOCHBERG: Still, Joe Reynolds bristled that people accept accidents as part of mining.
JOE REYNOLDS: You should be able to put a man in a coal mine every day and bring him out again. There's no reason for men to die on the job.
It's this coal mine mentality from years ago that it's like going into combat, and so many miners will die, that's an acceptable loss. That's been ingrained in people for decades here; a mindset like that is totally ignorant.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: Fourteen families I made a commitment to that their loved ones will not have died in vain.
LEE HOCHBERG: West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, whose uncle died in the Farmington disaster, moved quickly on that commitment. He introduced and the legislature passed bills requiring mines to provide devices that can furnish a longer oxygen supply, miners to be issued wireless communication and tracking devices, and mine operators to report mine accidents within 15 minutes.
The Sago accident wasn't reported to MSHA for two hours. The United Mine Workers say they had fought companies for those very rules for years. Some other proposals had been working their way through the federal government for as long as 12 years, but they ran into a roadblock.
JOE MAIN: During the first year of the Bush administration, there was several regulations in progress that was aimed at improving mine safety for miners across the country, and the Bush administration made a decision to withdraw a number of those.
LEE HOCHBERG: Former union safety chief Joe Main says 17 safety initiatives were recently discarded. One, requiring conveyer belts in mines be nonflammable, might have prevented the conveyer belt fire at the Alma Mine, which resulted in two deaths.
The Bush administration had dismissed the rule, arguing "accident and injury data reflect a decline in the number of these fires, therefore, there is no need for rulemaking."
JOE MAIN: These things have consequences.
LEE HOCHBERG: Main believes another rejected regulation, to require faster rescue response, might have saved the Sago miners.
JOE MAIN: Had the government moved forward and put these regulations in effect, that there would be people who perished in these accidents that would be alive today.
LEE HOCHBERG: Just Sunday night, 72 Canadian miners were able to walk out of a potash mine after a fire because they had holed up in an underground safe room the company had constructed. U.S. law authorizes MSHA to order safe rooms be built in U.S. mines, but the agency has never issued such an order.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Twelve miners at sago waited and waited and waited and waited.
LEE HOCHBERG: Under attack by a Senate panel last week, the administration blamed for its decisions money shortages and changing regulatory priorities. MSHA has cut 130 inspectors-- 10 percent of its total-- since 2001, and has said it will only pass rules "all parties can accept as necessary and practical."
Acting Director David Dye was asked why his agency rejected a proposal to require wireless communication underground, which, when used, has helped dozens of miners escape fires.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, whose father was a miner:
SEN. TOM HARKIN: The regulation -- the proposed regulation would have addressed the need for updated technology, including personal emergency devices, underground text messages devices. Why was that dropped in 2001?
DAVID DYE: Well, getting back to 1997 is really getting back --
SEN. TOM HARKIN: It was dropped in 2001.
DAVID DYE: Yes.
SEN. TOM HARKIN: In December of 2001.
DAVID DYE: Yes.
SEN. TOM HARKIN: Why was it dropped? Anyone know? If you don't know, guess.
DAVID DYE: Well, I talked to my tech support folks about that and there are, like you said, some mines that use it. Some of them, candidly, are enthusiastic about it. Some of them have had a number of problems, including reliability issues.
LEE HOCHBERG: West Virginians we spoke with question what help new laws would be if the government doesn't enforce them.
Joe Spadaro has been involved in mining issues for 40 years. He headed the National Mine Health and Safety Academy and in 2000 investigated for the federal government a major environmental coal processing disaster until, he says, a Bush appointee told him to quash his report because it was critical of a mining company.
JOE SPADARO: I don't see, out of this administration, the will to enforce the law and to do the tough things that are necessary to make the industry comply with the law.
LEE HOCHBERG: He says he and other West Virginians were especially upset when MSHA leaders left the recent congressional hearings early.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Your presence will be required here at least one more hour while we move ahead with the next panel.
DAVID DYE: We have really urgent matters that we need to go back to and attend. There's 15,000 mines in the United States, and we've got some really pressing matters.
JOE SPADARO: It breaks your heart when you see what people are going through. Everybody, everybody in the state, everybody, every person in the state was with those families, you know, when...
LEE HOCHBERG: The White House says mine safety has been a priority for the Bush administration. Joe Magna hopes so; he says effective legislation would be the only fitting monument to the victims of these latest West Virginia tragedies
JIM LEHRER: And yesterday, President Bush's nominee to head the agency that oversees mine safety testified before a Senate committee. Richard Stickler said he will review the administration's decision to withdraw a number of safety regulations proposed during the Clinton era. He also said enforcement of existing laws could be improved.