Twenty years ago today, on a Sunday afternoon in Brookwood, Alabama, 32 coal miners descended 2,000 feet below the ground into the Jim Walter Resources Blue Creek No. 5 Mine for a routine maintenance check.
Hours later, two successive gas explosions killed 13 miners. It took more than a month to recover their bodies. It was America’s deadliest coal disaster since 1984. And though the toll on the community and families is incalculable, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) initially fined the company $435,000. But in the end, the company haggled and argued and a federal judge whittled it down to $5,000 — a slap on the wrist for a traumatic and preventable loss of life.
The victims were fathers. Friends. Heroes. And union brothers, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) District 20.
Today, some of the same union members who were on site that fatal afternoon are heading into their sixth month on strike for better pay, benefits and yes — safer working conditions.