One such note, written by Martin Toler Jr., was simple but eloquent. "Tell all I see them on the other side. I love you. It wasn't bad. I just went to sleep."
I find it moving that in his last moments, Toler's main concern was to ease the minds of the living.
The letter reveals that miners found an explosive pocket of gas three weeks before the disaster and that four of the emergency breathing devices failed, which forced the miners to share what breathable air they had.
In an effort to signal rescuers, the men pounded plates and mine bolts with a sledgehammer but did not get a response.
"We eventually gave out and quit our attempts at signaling, sitting down behind the curtain on the mine floor...We were worried and afraid, but we began to accept our fate. Junior Toler led us all in the Sinners Prayer. We prayed a little longer, then someone suggested that we each write letters to our loved ones."
The letter concludes, "I cannot begin to express my sorrow for my lost friends and my sympathy for those left behind. I cannot explain why I was spared while the others perished. I hope that my words will offer some solace to the miners' families and friends who have endured what no one should ever have to endure."
Text of the letter:
Report by Charleston Gazette staff write Ken Ward, who has extensively covered the recent disasters and other mining related issues:
By coincidence, McCloy's letter, originally intended for the families of the miners, appeared widely in the press around the observation of Worker's Memorial Day and the release of a new report by the AFLCIO on worker fatalities in 2004.
Titled "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect," it found that "On average, 16 workers were fatally injured and more than 12,000 workers were injured or made ill each day of 2004. These statstics do not include deaths from occupational diseases, which claim the lives of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers earch year."
Further, "According to the BLS, there were 5,703 workplace deaths dure to traumatic injuries in 2004, and increase from the number of deaths in 2003, when 5,575 workplace deaths were reported."
For the report:
Federal and state investigations of the West Virginia mine disasters are ongoing. One persistent concern among mine safety advocates in the last five years has been the preceived laxity of federal mine safety efforts under the current administration, which is seen to be very industry friendly (to put it mildly) and which many believe has emphasized "compliance assistance" for companies to a greater extent than enforcement of safety laws for workers.
Maybe the best summary of the mine disasters and other workplace carnage was written by "an unknown proletarian" and published in the press of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1908. It was addressed to those who have profited from the broken bodies of working people:
There is never a mine blown skyward now but we're buried alive for you
And there's never a wreck drifts shoreward now but we are its ghastly crew.
Go and reckon our dead by the forges red and the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God! We have paid it in!