Craving Coal Dust 'Like Nicotine': Why Miners Love the Work

Coal mining is alluring for many in rural West Virginia, not for money alone.

ByABC News
April 7, 2010, 1:10 AM

GLEN DANIEL, W.Va., April 7, 2010— -- Charlie Athey sobbed Tuesday night as he stood before friends and family at a prayer service in a small church here, barely able to express gratitude for making it out of the Upper Big Branch mine alive, minutes before the explosion that took at least 25 of his fellow miners.

"I just thank God for bringing me out," he said, before hunching over to cry. Around him, family and friends also shed tears -- tears of gratitude that their son, brother and friend was spared, and tears for others who weren't as fortunate.

But later, members of this tightly-knit West Virginia community said Athey's close call and the tragedy that has re-exposed the dangers of coal mining doesn't detract from the allure of a profession that is beloved here.

Athey, a 34 year-old father of four who has only donned a miner's helmet for two years, says he plans to return to work in a mine as soon as possible.

"It's the only thing I know how to do," he said. "I don't read and write."

Working in a mine is one of the few careers here that can yield a decent salary -- especially for young adults in this economically-struggling region who may lack even a high school diploma.

Nine out of 10 Appalachian men do not receive college degrees; some don't even finish high school. The average starting salary for a coal mine worker is $60,000.

"You can come right out of high school and make $70,000 a year," said Missy Perdue, 22, a stay-at-home mother whose husband, Jeff Perdue, Jr., 22, is a miner.

April Athey, 28, also says she appreciates her husband's salary, despite the risks of mining, so that she can stay at home and raise the couple's four kids, including one-year-old twins.

But miners and their families here say that as compelling as the money is pride in an industry in which generations of West Virginians have invested their blood, sweat and tears.

"It's in the blood," said Bob Payne, 63, a retired mine worker, who says he's disappointed his son had to quit the business after a few months because he became claustrophobic. Payne said coal mining builds "unity" and "brotherhood" among coworkers that makes working in the dark and in danger rewarding.