Reporter’s Notebook: Utah Coal Mining Community Reacts to Collapse, Rescue

The families of the coal miners are on everyone's minds.

While rescue teams drill from the top of the mountain to get one more look at one more pocket inside the Crandall mine, people are talking. The horrible death of three men who died trying to dig out their six trapped comrades has left them emotionally exhausted and sad. Maybe that's why so many turned out for the annual arts and music festival in Helper, Utah.

"A dollar for the families?" says a woman in an apron.

Proceeds from many of the booths are being collected all weekend long. There are carwashes and bake sales too. At the church in town, a chalkboard outside announces a special Saturday service for the men. No one wants to say it out loud, but people will be praying not only for the three rescuers who died from the pressure blast in the mine, but also for the six who've been trapped. That's because almost everyone is afraid they are dead.

Outside the Helper Public Library is a statue of a coal miner wearing a hat with a light on his forehead and a pickaxe. The smiling statue stands about two stories tall — as tall as any building in this small town.

In Carbonville, everyone either works inside the mine a half a mile under the surface of the mountain or knows someone who does. One woman tells me she's a coal miner's daughter, but she won't let her sons work there. Her dad died in a cave-in. Her husband walks up and is using oxygen. She says if the mine doesn't get you, years of breathing coal dust will. It's called “Black Lung.”

Another says that when mining accidents happen, families of the workers are always afraid to speak out in fear of being put on a blacklist. She says those who complain publicly eventually lose their jobs. On the stage, a Bluegrass band sings about working on the night shift. Legend has it that Butch Cassidy came through here and robbed the Castlegate Mine office during his crime spree across the West. That mine was shut down because it was filled with toxic gas.

As festival goers eat their Indian fry bread and ribs, they wonder about Bob Murray, the silver-haired owner of the mine who employs so many of them. They wonder to each other if he's going to file for bankruptcy and get away with what they suspect is shoddy mining practices. He's known now for eyebrow-raising conferences where he speaks his mind and at times appears unstable.

“He's been breathing too much coal air,” says one person.

“He forgot to put on a mask,” says another.

A woman whose son was one of the six rescuers saved from the mine after others dug him out from three feet of coal, says his head injury may affect him forever. He's seeing double, but he's alive. Another, wearing earrings shaped liked red chili peppers, does a little dance to the music for her friends at the table. It does them good to be normal for a change.