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The Massey mine disaster: One family's struggle to move on
After a mine disaster took their son, says Stephanie McCrummen, the Quarleses got a big check from the company. But that did little to temper their grief
Gary Quarles and his wife Patty (not pictured), who lost their only son, Gary Wayne, 33, in a West Virginia mine disaster in 2010, visit a memorial for the 29 miners who died.
Gary Quarles and his wife Patty (not pictured), who lost their only son, Gary Wayne, 33, in a West Virginia mine disaster in 2010, visit a memorial for the 29 miners who died.
Washington Post/Sarah L. Voisin
G

ARY QUARLES SAT on the front porch of his trailer in Horse Creek Hollow, W.Va., where he and his wife have lived for more than 30 years. The trailer had new paint. Two new white trucks were in the gravel driveway. Another trailer 40 feet away, where his only son once lived, had a new roof and new furniture, although no one lives there now. Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, was one of 29 workers killed on April 5, 2010, in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades. 

Massey Energy, which owned the mine, offered settlements to the families. Gary and his wife, Patty, called the $3 million offer a "slap in the face." So they got a lawyer. Other families got lawyers. Earlier this year, the last of the wrongful-death claims filed by the families against Massey and inherited by the company that bought it, Alpha Natural Resources, came down to four days of mediation.

Offers were made and refused. Then Patty, her head pounding with a migraine, looked at a number, looked at her distraught husband, thought of her two grandchildren, and finally said, "Do it." With that, and with other families agreeing to settlements whose terms remain confidential, millions of dollars have begun raining down on Appalachia, a bitter resolution for families who had hoped other forms of justice would also materialize.

More than two years after an explosion that an independent panel blamed on a corporate culture that put "the drive to produce coal above worker safety," no former high-ranking Massey executives have been criminally charged. No new federal mine safety legislation has passed, a matter Gary and others pressed in Washington recently, carrying poster-size pictures of their lost sons, brothers, and husbands into the red-carpeted offices of senators and representatives.

"This was my son, Gary Wayne," Gary said to lawmakers over and over, on a day that began with three antidepressants. "I called him my son, but he was a man, a real man." He paused to compose himself. "We are here for safety."

But he and the others left without any new assurances on legislation.

NOW THAT THEY never have to worry about money again, Patty has retired from a part-time health-care job. Gary retired from more than 20 years of coal mining, work he respected but never loved, especially when he worked for Massey. The company was frequently cited for federal safety violations, which it often contested. Its chief executive, Don Blankenship, resigned after the disaster with a payout reportedly worth at least $12 million.

"'Production first, safety last, haul the coal or haul your a--,'" Gary said, reciting what he and other miners believed was the true Massey creed.

He and his son had an easy rapport. If Gary Wayne ever swore at him he can't remember, he says, and his son's life came to resemble his own in many respects. When Gary Wayne became a coal miner, he moved into the trailer next door. He got a truck, got married, had two kids, got divorced, and built a life around the rhythms of fatherhood, hunting seasons, and dinner with his parents.

Gary leaned back in his front-porch swing. The sun was out.

"I always wondered what it'd be like not having to work," he said. "I love to hunt. I used to think, 'When I'm retired, when the seasons come in, I can hunt every day.' But see, me and Gary Wayne hunted. It ain't good. It ain't what I hoped it've been. Now when I make the trip I cry going in, I cry in the tree stand, I cry coming home. I never know when I might start crying. I don't really understand it."

His wife said she only ever saw him cry one time before this. Now he cried remembering crying, and cried thinking about the night of the explosion, when families gathered in a building and a woman from Massey holding a clipboard opened the door, keeping it ajar with her foot, a detail that still disturbs him.

"'If I call your name,'" he recalled her saying, "'you are to report to the fire department to identify bodies.' What kind of person says that?"

He cried last year when he and Patty finally got their son's autopsy report and read it in the parking lot of their lawyer's office. She wanted to know every single detail, to imagine it, to somehow be with her son in his last moment. He was reluctant to see Gary Wayne described so crudely.

"The decedent is identified by recognition of specific coal miner medallion and tracking number," it began. "The decedent is received wearing heavily soot stained coveralls...heavy soot deposition on the anterior tongue surface...diffuse cherry red lividity," it continued, referring to a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The report noted that Gary Wayne had black lung disease and that the cause of death was smoke and soot inhalation, and it went on to describe his organs. His father was sorry to know how much his son's heart weighed.

Gary got off the swing and, because he had all the time in the world to do anything he wanted, he got in his new truck and drove down the winding two-lane road, merging with the 5 p.m. traffic of miners heading to work or home.

"Everybody here knows everybody," he said, describing a world in which the coal mining business infuses everything. "This guy here," he said, passing a house, "me and him worked together forever."

"This guy," he said, passing another. "He's a mine inspector. When the explosion happened and I called, he didn't do nothing but cry."

There were neighbors who went to high school with him or his son, kids who became mine bosses or safety officials, Massey executives or their in-laws, people who knew the blessings and curses of the business, people who felt empathy but also degrees of guilt, and who lined up for three blocks for Gary Wayne's funeral.

Gary drove past the house of his friend Goose, who survived the Upper Big Branch explosion and who said that when he sees Gary these days, he does not see a rich man but a sad one. "That was his boy. That was his pride and joy," he said.

Gary drove past a local school — "Massey paid for that," he said — and past some Little League ball fields — "I was told Massey owned those" — past Upper Big Branch, which now has a sign that reads "Coal River East."

"At one point in time, everyone loved Massey," Gary said, driving along. "They gave money for ball teams, to restaurants. They owned you."

A SPOKESMAN FOR Alpha said the company is committed to resolving problems it inherited when it bought Massey. "Everyone wants to look forward," he said. "It was a terrible thing that happened. I don't think anyone wants to keep reliving that....We've been able to do a lot since June of last year to sort of tie up some of those things and move forward."

Gary pulled into Pineview Cemetery. "Massey paid for this," he said, standing before his son's headstone. "It was going to be $10,000 or more. It was way up there. Patty was going to use her debit card, but when we got home there was a message saying Massey was going to pay for all of it. All the headstones. All the funerals. All of it, Massey paid for it."

The whole time her husband was sitting outside or driving to the cemetery, Patty, who has an image of her son tattooed on her lower leg, had been sitting on an old leather couch. She had watched TV, taken a nap, then watched TV some more, then gone back to sleep.

"I know it's hard to believe, but I was a busy person before," she said the next day, sitting at the kitchen table. "I loved housework. Loved gardening. I've lost interest in everything. Now we can do whatever we want to do, but now we don't want to."

She had thought about moving, she said, but she realized "wherever I'm at, the same problem will be there."

Also, "him," she said, pointing to her husband, sitting in the living room with a new pair of white headphones on, staring out the glass front door and listening to bluegrass songs by Ralph Stanley, including "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," which he's known since he was a kid.

"He just listens to that music and cries," she said. "I don't know if it gives him peace of mind. Me, I always liked music, but I don't listen to it now. It makes me sad. Him? It doesn't matter how sad it is."

THEY HAVE BEEN together since she was 14. Patty does not cry as much as her husband only because she knows that if she does, then he will fall apart. During a memorial service, a time Patty was crying, a Massey official touched her shoulder and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over.

More recently, before the settlement checks started arriving, a corporate lawyer, after explaining some legal details, leaned over to her and said, "I'm so sorry," and Patty just nodded.

None of these sorries made her feel better. And the financial settlement, perhaps the biggest sorry of all, brought its own burden. "I wanted it over," she said. "I wanted it over so bad."

"At the same time," she said, and now she was crying, "this is your mom saying this is what your life's worth. Like your mom has sold you out....When the lawyers said $3 million I was so mad I couldn't see straight. I wouldn't have settled. I wouldn't have settled for one red cent."

And then she did.

She is legally prohibited from saying how much the settlement was. But she can say that when she finally agreed to it, she felt anything but better.

"'Gary Wayne, well, this is what you was worth,'" she recalled thinking. "He was our whole world," Patty said. "He'd come to the door and say, 'Hey Mom.' I can almost still hear him. He was a 33-year-old man who never left home. His house was 40 feet away. It's unbearable to think about what's actually gone."

When the check arrived from the coal company, she said, she and her husband felt relieved to have accomplished what they are certain their son wanted them to accomplish. They felt glad for his children, grateful to their lawyers, somehow humbled and vindicated. They felt like they'd reached the end of a necessary process.

And with all of that, Gary felt as sad as ever.

"It won't never leave me," he said.

Patty felt something else.

"Sick," she said. "I felt sick."
 


©2012 by The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission. 

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