45 years ago, 38 miners were sacrificed for coal

The city of Hyden includes a memorial to the 38 miners killed at Hurricane Creek in Leslie County, 45 years ago today.
The city of Hyden includes a memorial to the 38 miners killed at Hurricane Creek in Leslie County, 45 years ago today. City of Hyden

When 21-year old Teddy Bush entered the Finley Coal Co. No. 15 mine on Hurricane Creek in Leslie County, 45 years ago today (Dec. 30, 1970), he surely didn’t expect that it would be his last day on the Earth.

However, shortly after noon, a massive coal dust explosion ripped through the mine killing 38 miners. It was the most deadly coal mine disaster in Eastern Kentucky history, and remains the most lethal mining disaster in America in the last 45 years. Teddy, who had only worked five months in the mines, was survived by his parents and three brothers.

His best friend, 19-year old Delbert Henson, was also killed in the explosion.

I was a 20-year old college student at the time of the Hurricane Creek Disaster and I didn’t know Bush. But I do know that the mine operators for whom he worked valued profits far more than they did the safety of their miners. The operators were using illegal explosives underground, there were heavy accumulations of explosive coal dust throughout the mine, and the mine was inadequately “rock dusted” to limit explosions, which is a recipe for disaster.

Bush missed out on the joys of life that I have been fortunate to experience during the past 45 years. Most notably, he never got the chance to have children and to enjoy watching them grow up. He was robbed of his life by the greed of wealthy mine owners, yet no one paid a price for his death.

As is typical with American mine disasters, this diaster resulted in no jail sentences for the perpetrators and zero accountability.

Shortly after the disaster, Elburt Osborn, the inept director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, declared, “This disaster was not unexpected. We’ve had two good years since Farmington (78 miners were killed in a methane gas explosion at a Consolidation Coal Co. mine in Farmington, W. Vs. on Nov. 20, 1968) and I think we can almost expect one of these [mine disasters] a year.”

Sadly, Osburn was not alone in his cynicism and complacency.

Despite the enormity of the Hurricane Creek disaster, and the untold suffering it caused so many families, there was no meaningful mine-safety legislation, either federal or state, enacted because of the disaster.

Legislators apparently considered the 38 deaths an acceptable cost of mining coal. In 2011, many years after the disaster, a memorial to the Hurricane Creek miners was constructed near the sealed mine site, just a few miles outside of Hyden, the county seat. The memorial solemnly includes a bronze hard hat and a biographical plaque for each of the dead miners. However, one disturbing marker stands out. It wrongly and insultingly proclaims that the 38 miners “gave their lives for Black Gold.” Nowhere at the memorial site is anything said about the numerous unsafe conditions or callous disregard for life that actually caused the disaster.

On this 45th anniversary of the disaster — which author Tom Bethell pointedly labeled a “massacre” in his powerful 1972 book about the tragedy — let us lay to rest the obscene notion that Teddy Bush and his co-workers willingly gave their lives for coal, as if they proudly died to fuel our nation’s economy.

In fact, the miners worked in a doghole mine — where their lives mattered little to the mine owners — simply to provide for their families. The Hurricane Creek miners didn’t willingly die for coal; rather, they were cruelly sacrificed on the altar of Big Coal. May they rest in peace.

Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney, has been a mine-safety advocate for 35 years.