“We found love in a cold, dark mine,” says Upper Big Branch miner

One week from today will mark the first anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster where 29 men lost their lives from an enormous and powerful explosion. Those left behind–the parents, spouses, children and friends—have lives that are changed forever. Ken Ward and Gary Harki of the Charleston (WV) Gazette share a touching story of Ms. Bobbie Pauley, a rare female coal miner who worked at the Upper Big Branch mine. It’s a must read story. Bobbie Pauley lost her love, Boone Payne, 53, on that fateful April 5, 2010 afternoon. He was a roof bolter with the 9-man headgate 22 crew dayshift crew who were about 1/2 mile from the blast’s origin but still fatally injured. She worked in the same section of the mine on a different shift. Ward and Harki write:

“Upper Big Branch was where they met, where their love blossomed, and where their life together was ripped apart. …On many days, their mantrips would pass each other as she was going into the mine and he was coming out.”

They tell us a love story, but also provide a glimpse at work life for a woman trying to earn a living in a man’s world.

“There were times when men would say things that made her uncomfortable, Pauley said. ‘I’d tell them this sounds like a man conversation, and then I’d go somewhere else for a while and come back.’ Early on, a co-worker told her he didn’t think women should be coal miners. ‘Thank you for your unsolicited opinion,’ she said she told the man, ‘but I’m here and I’m not leaving.’ The man eventually accepted her, she said.”

I had the opportunity to meet and interview Ms. Bobbie Pauley as part of the WV Governor’s Independent Investigation of the disaster. [We will be releasing our report in a few weeks.] She spoke with great respect for the miners—some now dead—who showed her the ropes and gave her tips to master the hefty mining equipment. She provided her first-hand account of how managers ran the mine and the problems miners commonly encountered. When she spoke about harassment at the mine, I couldn’t help but think of Lois Jenson, and the other women who worked at an iron ore mine in Minnesota and were subjected to horrendous sexual and gender harassment. Lois Jenson’s story was made into a movie called North Country (2005) and Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for her performance.

But Bobbie didn’t come to talk about herself. She spent hours with us thoughtfully studying the mine maps to help answer our questions. Despite her painful loss, she taxed her memory to remember details. I think she realized that one small nugget of information might fill in the puzzle of why her love, and 28 other men, died in the worst US coal mine disaster in 40 years.