A Coal Miner’s Son

Dr. Ernie Bowling is a fine optometrist and one of my best friends in the world. He is also a coal miner’s son. Like his father and grandfather before him, Ernie headed to the coal mines after high school probably convinced that he would spend the rest of his life breathing lungfuls of black dust and wandering the dimly-lit, coal-filled catacombs carved deep into the hills of West Virginia and Alabama. He labored in the mines for several years, and once he even spent time serving under the stern and watchful eye of a famous foreman, Homer Hickam, Sr.–father of Homer, Jr. of Rocket Boys and October Sky fame.

In time, he saw an opportunity to escape that life and went on to graduate from the University of Alabama and then attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry where I met him in 1986. Ernie may be an eye doctor now, but he is still a miner at heart and a member of that “band of brothers” who have dived deeply into the earth and faced innumerable dangers for the sake of family, friends, and ultimately, all of us. He understands the lives of the men in the picture above, and he grieves for those who were lost in this week’s tragedy at the Sago Mine near Tallmansville, West Virginia.

With his permission, I’m reproducing below portions of an email that he sent to several of his colleagues this past Wednesday after awakening to discover the full impact of the tragedy. His words are piercingly descriptive and vividly bring to mind the hellish fury that these men must faced as they fought for their lives. They also serve as a fitting tribute to the thirteen who perished, some of whom, even in their greatest hour of travail, demonstrated their selfless love by penning notes to family members reassuring them that they had not suffered, but had merely “gone to sleep:”

I’m a little bummed today. Only one man survived. This in itself is a miracle.

What most folks, especially the idiots on the network news, don’t understand is how bad a mine explosion really is. I had an optometrist once ask me what it was like. The best way I can describe it: imagine yourself inside the barrel of a gun. The concussion knocks you to the ground, the fire sucks all the oxygen out of the area, the coal dust is so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face, the smoke is so heavy you can’t breathe, your throat is on fire from the heat and the smoke. In the midst of this instant hell, you’ve got to keep your head and quickly don your breathing apparatus before the carbon monoxide (CO) kills you. Then you have to find your way to fresh air, as you’ve only got an hour before the breathing apparatus expires. If you can’t make it out, then you must find building materials (e.g., cloth, block, wood, whatever is available) to “barricade” yourself in the mine.

Think of a mine barricade as the equivalent of an Egyptian tomb: sealed airtight, with you inside. I’m telling you, it takes a lot of guts to do that. It is a final desperate act, the absolute last action you take in an effort to seal off the rising CO. And it must be absolutely airtight, else your actions are for nothing, as the CO, which you know is there, rises slowly, until you fall asleep and die. Evidently these men tried to barricade themselves, but is was insufficient. The CO filtered in, and the men died.

I’ve thought a lot about these men the last 48 hours–like I thought a lot about my friends who died in a similar manner in Brookwood, Alabama in 2001 (in the same mine I used to work). My father was a coal miner, as was his father before him. Mining truly is “in the blood” and there is a bond we all share, even these so many years out. No one should have to risk their lives to feed their family, yet these people do every day. So, when I get a little upset about my own state of affairs, as we all do from time to time, I remind myself of how very different my life is now from what it used to be. Then things like this happen and remind me with stark reality of the contrast of my life. I’m blessed to have escaped, and blessed to have friends like you.

Pray for these fallen…

Indeed, we shall, my friend. We pray for the gentle repose of those souls who have perished. For the families and friends of the miners who have lost so much and whose hopes and joy were raised and then cruelly dashed to pieces by an inadvertant but macabre miscommunication–we pray for courage, grace and endurance through these troubled waters. For the owners and operators of the mines, we pray that they will endeavor to discover new and improved methods for miner safety and that they will always put the souls of men and women above the lifeless, dry bones of some corporate bottom line. For all of us–may God illumine our eyes to the First Things of life, just as he has for this one coal miner’s son.


Update: For another vivid description of coal miner life, listen to Robin Webb’s commentary Working in a Coal Mine as heard on NPR’s All Things Considered.

  1. DJG

    Thank you for sharing this. I was very disappointed that they were already doing a “special” on this tragedy on TV last night. News people don’t really care, they just want the next big story.

    I love hearing from someone who really knows what it is like. My heart hurts for them all.

  2. Ed

    This story and the one I tagged about the high school football player without legs have really shifted my priorities this week. My problems look insignficant compared to these situations. I know that they are not all insignificant, but they must be prioritized for what really matters. I remember being rushed to the hospital a couple of years ago with chest pain. It became apparent to me very quickly that some of the things I thought were important — were trivial. There are important lessons here for everyone.

  3. Hoots Musings

    Thank you Mike for sharing that email.

    Something else the media has capitalized on are the MNSHA violations. My husband works for an industry that is MNSHA regulated. Just because there were past violations does not mean the mining company was wrong, what it means is they had time to fix the violations; which could have been moving a plug, a sign, etc.

    I appreciate you sharing the viewpoint from someone who has been there.

  4. mike


    Thanks for contributing. I agree that we should be careful not to seize on media reports which focus on alleged corporate wrongdoings–I know that MNM are often biased against big business. There will be plenty of time to sort out what went wrong and whether or not any of the reported violations had anything to do with the explosion.

    I also don’t necessarily believe everything coming from a corporate spokespersion either. They have their own vested interests and image to protect. “Praying” that they always put lives before profit is not my attempt to assign blame but is simply a call for honesty and integrity in this process.

    I suspect there are many instances where large corporations have put the bottom line first before safety. I would point out that I also work in a heavily regulated industry (healthcare) which has had its own share of problems over the years, so I know it does happen. But my point is that we should always strive to see that it doesn’t.

  5. Hal

    Thank you, Mike and Ernie, for your insights into this tragic accident. It certainly does illuminate my many blessings and give me a much greater appreciation for my chosen vocation.

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