Thirty years later: Remembering the McClure No. 1 Mine explosion
Luther McCoy, shown in a family photograph with wife Nola and their daughters, was among seven miners killed when the McClure No. 1 Mine exploded on June 21, 1983. After three decades, McCoy’s widow says the tragedy left a void that won’t ever be filled.
June 21 marks the 30th anniversary of the McClure No. 1 Mine explosion that left six men and one woman dead. But for those left to mourn the loss of those miners, that day is never far from their minds.
Nola Mullins, the widow of miner Luther Julian McCoy, still gets choked up when she talks about the night her husband was killed.
Mullins and McCoy married young and had their first daughter by the time they celebrated their second anniversary. A second daughter followed four years later.
The family made their home in the Brushy Ridge section of Dickenson County. They were active in their church, where they both taught Sunday school.
It was her ability to work so well with young children that spawned Mullins’ desire to become an elementary school teacher, an idea her husband whole-heartedly supported.
McCoy had worked as a coal miner for 16 years and although he had never had a close call, he was certainly aware of the hazards of the job. He wanted his wife to have an education so that if the need ever arose, she could provide for herself and their daughters.
McCoy had worked in the Moss No. 2 Mine for 15 years, but when it closed down, he took a job at McClure 1. He knew the mine had a reputation for being gaseous, Mullins recalls. But he had a family to support and needed the job. Besides, McCoy was a conscientious man, having previously received a 10-year and 15-year pins for safety.
Mullins graduated from college in May 1983. Within a month, her beloved husband would be killed when McClure 1 exploded.
McCoy worked the evening shift and usually returned home from work around midnight. His wife, who always waited up for him to return home, remembers that it was after 1 a.m., well past time for him to be home, when the phone rang. A neighbor said there had been an explosion at the mine and asked if McCoy was home.
Mullins immediately called her brother-in-law, Darrell McCoy, who picked her up and drove her to the mine site. “We were stopped by security. When they found out my husband was in the explosion, they allowed us to go on up,” she recalled. “We were taken to a secure area with other family members. Not knowing much of anything, we all prayed that somehow the men may have found an area and be safely awaiting rescue.”
Within a few hours, family members learned the miners had been found and were deceased. “We were not allowed to see them, as their bodies were badly burned and recognizable only from the tags each miner wears just for this kind of identification,” Mullins said.
The families and community were shaken and grief stricken. Mullins said her daughters, Veita and Anna, were 16 and 12 years old respectively. “They both loved their dad so very much, so at first there was denial, then came acceptance and grief.”
Mullins said her daughters were hardened toward the mining company, believing officials had allowed safety to be ignored, which cost them their dad. They were comforted only by their memories of him. “They were old enough to keep him in their hearts, keep the lessons he taught, the morals he instilled, and the love of God in their hearts and souls,” Mullins said, adding that the hardest thing for her daughters and herself was never having the opportunity to tell him good-bye.
Mullins said her husband worked in the coal mines the majority of the 19 1/2 years they were married. “Spouses learn to accept the coal miner’s choice to work in the coal mines,” she said. “The miners have a brotherhood, much like the police, firemen and others do. Safety is always a concern and the brotherhood of coal miners, a family one might say, will watch out for each other.”
Miners don’t dwell on the fact that when they go into the mine, they may never again see their families, Mullins said. She believes they often keep hazards and uneasiness hidden from the spouses so they won’t worry. “Yet danger is always prevalent and on their minds,” she stated.
As for the cause of the explosion, Mullins said she wonders if a lack of communication between the previous work shift and the next one coming in failed. “This should never have occurred,” she stated. “Curtains could have been in place, more rock dust could have been thrown. A spark ignited the methane and disaster was the result.”
Was safety ignored or simply forgotten? She still ponders that question 30 years after her husband was killed in the explosion. “The ‘what ifs’ will be forever in my mind,” she said.
The death of her husband has left a void in Mullins’s life that will forever be with her, yet she say “life does go on.”
She hopes that coal miners won’t be too scared to report safety hazards. Her message to today’s miners: “Remember, there are folks at home waiting for your shift to be over.
“My prayers will continue to be with all coal miners and their spouses. I pray that the miners who continue to make a living in the coal mines and their wives have found solace and comfort with a savior.”
Mullins said the loss of her husband was felt not only by his family, but his church family and community as well. “His death continues to be a loss to all who knew him,” she said.
“We will never forget him or the other six whose lives were lost on June 21, 1983.”