Getting to the truth about the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster (UBB) is what they wanted. The families of the 29 coal miners who were killed in the Massey Energy coal mine in Raleigh County, WV looked to the investigators for the answers. Jim Beck was instrumental in providing them those answers. Beck was part of the six-person Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, and he was a key player in finding out the truth. Jim Beck died last week at age 61 from metastatic stomach cancer.
“Jim and his team gave me and the other 28 families of UBB the truth of what happened to our loved ones,” remembered Betty Harrah. Her brother, Steven “Smiley” Harrah, 40, was one of the miners who died in the massive coal mine dust explosion.
Beck served as the team’s key investigator at the scene of the crime, spending hundreds of hours in the coal mine with the federal and state inspectors. No one could accuse him of “just tagging along” in the effort. As a former coal miner, foreman, superintendent, and CEO of a major coal mining company, he knew what to look for and the questions to ask.
I’d not worked with Jim Beck prior to our involvement in the UBB investigation. I appreciated his patience, especially when I asked him questions about particular mining practice or needed help reading the mine map. He was masterful at explaining things to those of us who were not coal miners. I also respected his integrity. Late in his mining career, Beck lost a job with a mining company for refusing to compromise on safety.
Davitt McAteer, who led the Governor’s team, recalled one moment he shared with Beck during the UBB investigation:
“We were underground on the longwall, near the place where the longwall miners were found. He and I sat there for some time absorbed in our own thoughts. It was absolutely quiet and black but for our cap lamps. The other investigators had gone ahead of us. Jim said, ‘it doesn’t have to be this way. They didn’t have to die….’”
Jim Beck will be missed.