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Miners memorial sparks prosperous plans for dying WV town

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On March 2, 1915, 112 coal miners lost their lives in the worst mine disaster in Fayette County history.

Nearly 100 years later, all that stood on the former mine’s grounds was the Layland Baptist Church. and all that fought for its memory was an annual church service in the miners’ honor on that day — that is, until the community decided to do something about it.

“We decided to do something because these men gave the ultimate sacrifice,” said Ray Crook, president of the Layland Miners Memorial Committee and pastor at the church. “Many lessons have been learned from the disaster that are still in effect today.”

On June 28, community members unveiled the Layland Miners Memorial, built to honor both those who lost their lives in the explosion as well as the 53 miners who were trapped for four days, but made it out alive.

The memorial was quite a feat for the small community, Crook said. It took the committee four years to raise the $27,000 it cost to build the memorial, but Crook said the outcome was more than worth the effort.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “We just jumped in with both feet and got started.”

Risky business

Much has changed in the coal mining industry since the Layland mine disaster. It’s no secret that coal mining has helped sustain West Virginia, supporting about 30,000 direct jobs in the state. But unfortunately, dangerous jobs like coal mining inevitably come with fatalities.

Since 1884, the Mountain State has endured 119 mine disasters, resulting in 2,662 lives lost, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health and Safety Training.

From 1884 to 1961, at least five miners had to be injured in an incident for it to be classified as a disaster; since 1961, that number has dropped to three.

Only four disasters in West Virginia’s history involved more than 100 fatalities, which all occurred before 1925. The worst of which was the Dec. 6, 1907 explosion that killed 361 people in Monongah. The mines have since gotten safer; the state has only faced five of these tragedies in the last 20 years, of which all saw fewer than 30 fatalities.

Although the numbers show that the mines have gotten safer, the danger that comes with working in the mines has certainly not been eradicated — as many West Virginians know, the April 5, 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners is still far from forgotten.

Making improvements

Eugene White, WVMHST director, said the department is working hard to make coal mining even safer.

“We’re constantly moving forward with newer technology and newer safety devices,” White said. “We’re constantly getting better at what we’re doing every day.”

WVMHST inspectors do underground inspections on “every inch” of every coal mine four times a year, White said, checking the surface, the escape ways, and everything in between to ensure that the mines are complying with their standards. The department has also been testing for rock dust, which can prevent coal dust explosions, for a little more than a year, he added.

“We hope to prevent disasters and accidents,” White said.

In addition to larger-scale disasters, coal miners are killed by other means every year.

Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 200 were injured nationwide by becoming pinned or stuck between continuous mining machines underground, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. And just this year, the WVMHST has reported three fatalities in West Virginia.

But the state is working to curb these problems as well.

In April, the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety unanimously approved a rule requiring all mines to install proximity detection systems, which shut off fast-moving mobile equipment when miners get too close to it, preventing miners from being crushed or pinned by equipment.

In an August 2013 survey, the WVMHST found that only about 74 of the 1,800 continuous mining machines, roof bolters, scoops, shuttles and other mobile equipment in use in West Virginia were reported to have proximity detection systems.

Although many mines have a long way to go, White is optimistic that they can turn things around.

“We know we’re going to get better with technology that will help make coal mines safer,” White said.

Left behind

Like many old mining towns, Layland once supported happy families and a booming economy. But when the mining industry left in the 1980s, the community’s livelihood followed suit.

The Layland population has rapidly decreased from 518 residents in 2000, to 309 in 2010, and then dropped again to an estimated 192 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau information. That said, the population in 1910 was only 410, according to the 1919 West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

The difference?

Prosperity.

In 2010, there were only three establishments that employed between 0 and 19 people in the community, according to Census Bureau data. And according to the Bureau’s 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, the civilian population between ages 18 and 64 in Layland consisted of 110 people.

Of those, only 10 were employed.

“It’s a small community, it’s a dying community, and it used to be a booming town,” Crook said.

With no mining industry, the town had little to hold onto. Once home to schoolhouses, mining camps and a branch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, Layland now is plagued with vacant coal company houses, abandoned equipment and an aging population.

But Crook and the Layland Miners Memorial Committee haven’t given up. The memorial was “just the beginning,” Crook said, as the team has plans to build a miner’s museum to bring business back into the community.

“What we’re trying to do is bring this community back to life,” Crook said.

To find out more about the memorial or donate to the committee’s cause, visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/rayandsarah1.