The Scotia Widows
Reda Turner of Cumberland, Kentucky, knew coal mining was dangerous. When she was fifteen years old her father died in a coal mine roof collapse. He left behind eleven children in the days before workers’ compensation benefits provided some minimal aid for a dead miner’s family. Reda remembered, “It was hard on Mom. I can remember lots of times when we barely had enough to eat, just gravy for supper and breakfast lots of days.” Tragedy struck again four years later, when Reda’s older brother was electrocuted in the Scotia mine.
When Reda married Dean Turner, her childhood sweetheart, her “fairy tale love,” they left Eastern Kentucky for Detroit, where he found work. They had been living there a few years when they took a family trip back home. While there, Dean decided to apply for work at Scotia so they could stay in Kentucky and he could earn more than he was making in Detroit. Reda “tried to get Dean not to go in the mines, but he said they were paying twenty-six dollars a day and that would be good for our security. He wanted the best for his family.” On March 9, 1976, they had been back in Kentucky for six years.
That morning, after Dean left for work at Scotia, Reda took their children to school and went to her aunt’s house. While she was there, someone called to ask if everything was all right, because they had heard ambulances go by. Reda said everything was fine and went on to the store to buy ham for Dean’s lunch bucket for the next day. She heard the checkout boy say “something about Scotia, but it didn’t dawn on me what he said.” She picked up her lunch items, and when she went to check out she asked him, “Did I hear you say something about Scotia?” He replied, “Yes, they had an explosion up there, and they have some men trapped.” Reda “just went to pieces then.” Her husband, Willie Dean Turner, was thirty-two years old. They had two children.
Vickie Scott heard a man over a CB radio at a friend’s house frantically calling out, “We need help over at Scotia.” She told him to “slow down, take it easy and tell me real slow what happened.” When he excitedly repeated that there was an explosion at Scotia, she hesitantly asked, “What mine was it?” He said it was in a lower mine, so with great trepidation she asked if he knew what section the explosion happened in. He said it was in the Two Southeast Mains section. Vickie “knew that was where my husband was working. I just fell apart right there.” Tommy Scott was twenty-four years old. They had no children.
Carol Combs was cleaning her home about ten miles from the mine when she heard an ambulance go up the road. She gave it no thought until a few minutes later when she was sweeping her porch. A neighbor rushed over to tell her there had been a serious accident at the mine, and she thought Carol should go there. Carol’s husband, Everett Combs, was twenty-eight years old. They had two children.
Some of the miners’ wives were urged to stay at home with loved ones until someone could obtain information about what had occurred at the mine. Diana McKnight waited to hear news of her husband, Larry, and of her brother, Everett Combs, both of whom were still in the mine. Larry was twenty-seven years old. He and Diana had one child.
But Geraldine McKnight did not stay home. She rushed to the mine after her mother called from the hospital to say they were emptying hospital beds for new arrivals because something had happened at Scotia. Geraldine’s husband, Roy McKnight, was known as Bud. He was thirty years old, and he and Geraldine had two children. She had faith that Bud, a big, bull-shouldered giant of a man, a former Army sergeant, would lead the men out alive.
At the mine, Geraldine McKnight and other anxious wives and their families had to walk a mile or so through mud, past ambulances and company vehicles, because the coal company would not let them park their cars on Scotia’s property. They had to wait at the coal company bathhouse, where the miners each day would hoist their regular clothes to the ceiling and change into their mining clothes, steel-toed boots, hard hats, and the heavy leather belts which held their headlamp batteries and small metal emergency breathing devices called self-rescuers. At the end of their shift, the miners would shower off the black coal dust and grime from the mine and change back into their everyday clothes. That day, those regular clothes of the fifteen miners still somewhere underground were hanging above the women in the bathhouse. The wives and families of those fifteen men were told only that there had been an explosion.
The women suffered interminably as time ticked away without any information about their husbands. Scotia did not have a trained mine rescue team, so they had to wait for rescue teams from other companies to arrive. When these teams reached Scotia, they were briefed on what had occurred and then quickly went into the mine on rail cars as far as they could. There they set up a fresh air base and then worked their way on foot, as fast as possible, farther and farther into the mine. Time was their enemy, because the miners trapped somewhere underground were being exposed to the deadly carbon monoxide that follows a coal mine explosion, and their self-rescuers could provide breathable air for only a few hours. As the afternoon turned into the evening with no news from the rescue teams underground, the women at the surface grew ever more fearful that their husbands might not be found before their self-rescuers gave out.
Finally, at ten o’clock that night, a rescue team discovered the body of a dead miner. Word then came to the surface of three more bodies, and later three more were discovered. Some time after that, another rescue team reported that they had located six miners all together behind a partially constructed plastic barricade. At one-twenty the next morning, the bodies of the last two men were located.
About two in the morning, fourteen hours after the explosion, a minister stood on some boxes near the Scotia bathhouse and announced they had found all the men, which temporarily lifted the women’s hopes. Then he added, “I’m sorry to inform you, there are no survivors.” As he read the names of the fifteen men whose bodies had been found, the women shrieked in horror. Some fainted into the arms of their families. Carol Combs collapsed from shock and had to be taken away in an ambulance. She spent the next several days heavily sedated.
The wives of the fifteen miners were now widows. Unfortunately, they would not be the only women to lose their husbands that week to the Scotia mine. As soon as MESA, the Mining Enforcement Safety Administration, arrived, they took control of the Scotia mine. MESA asked for volunteers to accompany some MESA inspectors back into the mine to restore the ventilation, so the government could begin to establish the cause of the Scotia explosion. Then, two days after the March 9 explosion, while three MESA inspectors and ten volunteer miners were down in the mine working on the ventilation, the Scotia mine exploded again, killing the MESA inspectors and eight of the volunteers. Two volunteers working farther away from the blast and closer to the mine entrance escaped without injury. When other rescue teams reached the bodies of the eleven men, twenty-four hours after this second explosion, they found no signs of life. Because of the possibility of a third explosion, these rescue teams were ordered to return to the surface without recovering the eleven bodies. MESA then ordered the Scotia mine sealed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Scotia Widows by Gerald M. Stern. Copyright © 2008 by Gerald Stern. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.