NOTE: A portion of this was broadcast on WVPB on January 10, the day family and friends buried Sago miner and Newburg resident Terry Helms.
When I went to bed just before 2 a.m. on January 4, I thought that 12 coal miners trapped beneath the earth in a town where I once worked as newspaper editor were alive. I did so with mixed emotions, for we knew one of the miners.
I had been on the phone with Courtney, my 22-year-old daughter, discussing the mining disaster and the rescue of 12 miners who were then said to be alive. I had called her just after midnight, elated by what I heard on a TV channel coming out of Pittsburgh.
“Did you hear the news?” I asked her.
She had heard, but I was surprised at the lack of emotion in her voice.
“Mom, did you hear that the one miner who died was Terry?”
She said Fox News carried an interview with a family member, who confirmed Terry Helms was the first miner they found earlier Tuesday night.
* * *
A lump stuck in my throat, as I thought about Terry’s daughter, Amber, who had competed on the Preston High track team with Courtney, both of them wearing braids in their hair and matching grins on their faces. I thought about his son, Nick, and how Courtney had once told me that all the girls would go gaga whenever he showed up at one of their track meets.
“He was Amber’s cool, big brother, and he was so cute!” She told me.
I also recalled the hundreds of times we drove past their house on Martin Hill, about five miles from our own.
Still connected to my daughter by phone, Courtney began talking about the man who never missed a track meet, who would tell her older sister, “Courtney has so much talent.” Terry would then say, during time spent talking on the bleachers, “We’re going to take her under our wing.” And that’s just what he did.
In spite of working long hours in the coal mines, and tending to other responsibilities, Terry’s children were so important, he made sure he was there for them. He was also there for other people’s children. “That’s the kind of person Terry was,” Courtney told me.
“Terry was the ultimate track dad,” she said. “If one of us girls needed something – like we forgot to take out an earring before our event began—Terry would keep it for us, and hold onto it until we were done.”
And now, Terry was dead. Gone. His poor family, I thought. What will they do? How will they cope, knowing that their loved one was the only one to die in that disaster?
* * *
When I woke up to a ringing phone a few hours later, it took a minute to get my bearings. The clock said it was 5 a.m. I heard Courtney’s voice on the line. “Mom, it was wrong. They got it wrong. They’re all dead. Only one miner survived.” For someone so young, she sounded so old. And tired. And sad.
I came awake immediately, understanding why the reporter’s blood that runs through my veins had given me reason to pause, when I first heard that 12 miners had been rescued. Watching the television, I wondered why a coal company official hadn’t released the news. I kept waiting for an official to step forward, to confirm it.
That’s what happens in big stories like these; there is an official release of information. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. But I, too, among the thousands of West Virginians who had waited with bated breath, for a miracle, turned off the television believing that Terry had been the only miner to die in the explosion. Thinking that, even in spite of losing Terry, we had gotten our miracle.
Discussing the whole affair with Cassandra afterward, we were both angered by what had happened. How terrible, we said, for families to be told their loved ones were alive only to later learn a terrible trick has been played on you.
* * *
Growing up in West Virginia, where coal has reigned as king for most of the state’s history, you learn at an early age that when it comes to coal mining, all is not always well. I learned that lesson while married to my childrens father, who would come home many nights, with yet another story about a roof fall, or a runaway piece of equipment, or a fellow miner being injured.
One of the most serious injuries I recall was the night he told me his coworker and driving buddy, J.R., had been crushed in a mining accident. After that, J.R. never worked in the mines again; his back and legs had received permanent damage from the injury.
My coal miner husband went from one mine to the next, in search of that elusive thing a miner will never find – a safe coal mine. There is no such thing. The very nature of the work is inherently dangerous. Going down below the ground, working in pitch black and wet conditions, while electrical wires are scattered about, and with long, iron rods known as roof bolts, used to hold up the mine ceiling, as well as the potential for methane gas, is anything but safe. In the 10 years we were married, if I didn’t learn anything else about coal mining, I learned that.
I can’t even count the times he came home after another 12-hour shift, cold to the bone and exhausted, telling me about the safety violations that were evident, but which were often hidden from the mine inspectors.
My concern was that my children’s father wouldn’t survive to see them grow up; his was just to get through another day alive.
I often wonder how much impact this fear had on our daughters, and what role it played in their decision to volunteer with the local emergency rescue crews.
“The last thing we wanted to hear was a dispatch to a coal mine, because it was always a rock fall, or someone was run over by a piece of equipment. If you got that call, you knew it was never going to be good,” Cassandra said.
* * *
Our Appalachian heritage teaches us the importance of living life on its own merit here in coal country. You take what you are given, and you roll with it. If life delivers you a punch in the gut, then you make the most of it.
That’s what we’ve done since January 2, when we first learned of the 13 miners who were trapped in a Tallmansville coal mine. When we first realized they might never make it out alive. When we learned, sometime two days later, that one actually did.
Just before we hung up the phone, Courtney asked me a question. “Mom, will you call me when you get up, and make sure I’m awake?”
I didn’t even feel the urge I usually have when she asks this of me, when I gently chide her about buying an alarm clock. “Sure thing. I love you,” I said instead.
* * *
Since this post was originally published, I have written four books. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is being used in colleges and some high schools; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese, and Pretty Little Liars, due out in July 2013.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of silence, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”