And yet, coal mining has improved its safety record in the past four decades. The 1968 coal mine explosion in Marion County, W.Va., which killed 78 men, prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Since then, the rate of fatalities has dropped dramatically, according to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Twenty-eight coal miners died in 2004, a steep decline from the industry's deadliest year, 1907, when 3,242 employees were killed.
These days, the industry is on a hiring spree as old coal mines reopen to meet America's seemingly insatiable appetite for electricity.
"We're going to have that 'help-wanted sign' up for a decade," predicted Tom Hoffman, vice president of external affairs for Consol Energy.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., agrees, saying the United States is "on the edge of a boom in coal." More than half of the nation's power remains dependent on the fossil fuel.
But today there are fewer and fewer young workers who want to endure the dangers and dank working conditions of the mines. And the tragedy this week at the Sago Mine may further deter young people from entering the field, UMWA president Roberts said. And yet, he admitted, as a parent, he was incredibly relieved when his two children chose to pursue jobs faraway from the dark, damp underground passages he trekked through as a young man.
"We love our children. And because you love your children, you want to protect them and you worry about them," he said.
Like his own father, Trumka says despite his proud heritage, he too wants his son to find another way to earn a living.
"My son hopefully will break the chain. I hope he will not be the fourth generation," Trumka said.