On March 9, 1976, an explosion in the Scotia mine in eastern Kentucky widowed 15 women. They asked Stern, a public interest lawyer, to represent them in suing the coal company based on his successful fight against the corporate coal companies that hea'd recounted in his book The Buffalo Creek Disaster. Here Stern offers a spare, lucid account of how the widows won a lawsuit against their husbandsa' employer despite obstacles that included community obloquy for suing the job-providing mining company, unfavorable laws designed to protect corporate mining, abusive defense tactics and the active hostility of the trial judge. What sets Sterna's effort apart from other David and Goliath legal stories is his impressive ability to explain in the simplest language complex legal issues, trial dynamics and strategy, and the role played by the intangibles of personality, bias and local culture in a lawsuita's outcome. Stern is also adept at keeping himself out of the story and allowing readers to come to their own conclusions based on the facts of the case and the moving words of the widows. (Aug. 26)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Scotia Widows: Inside Their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coalby Gerald M. Stern
On March 9, 1976, a violent explosion, fueled by high concentrations of methane gas and coal dust, ripped through the Scotia mine in the heart of Eastern Kentucky coal country. The blast killed fifteen miners who were working nearly three and a half miles underground; two days later, a second explosion took the lives of eleven rescue workers. For the miners’ surviving family members, the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons was only the beginning of their nightmare.
In The Scotia Widows, Gerald M. Stern, the groundbreaking litigator and acclaimed author of The Buffalo Creek Disaster, recounts the epic four-year legal struggle waged by the widows in the aftermath of the disaster. Stern shares a story of loss, scandal, and perseverance–and the plaintiffs’ fight for justice against the titanic forces of “Big Daddy Coal.”
Confronted at nearly every turn by a hostile judge and the scorched-earth defense of the Scotia mine’s owners, family members also withstood the opprobrium of some of their neighbors, most of whom relied on coal mining for their livelihoods. Meanwhile, Stern, representing the widows of the disaster on contingency, amassed huge bills and encountered a litany of formidable obstacles. The Eastern Kentucky trial judge withheld disclosure of his own personal financial interest in coal mining, and a popular pro-coal former Kentucky governor served as the lead defense counsel. The judge also suppressed as evidence the federal mine study that pointed to numerous safety violations at the Scotia mine: In a rush to produce more coal, necessary ventilation had been short-circuited, miners had not been trained in the use of self-rescue equipment, and ventilation inspections had not been made. Moreover, Scotia did not even have a trained rescue team. Ultimately, the Scotia widows’ ordeal helped to inspire the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which changed safety regulations for coal mines throughout the country.
The Scotia Widows portrays in gripping detail young women deciding to pursue a landmark legal campaign against powerful corporate interests and the judge who protected them. It is a critically important and timeless story of ordinary people who took a stand and refused to give up hope for justice.
Praise for The Scotia Widows:
“This is a very scary story, a guided tour of the grinding cogs and spinning wheels inside the machinery of justice. Gerald Stern’s compassionate account of the ordeal of the Scotia widows shows you how horribly out of kilter it can all get when greed and self-interest are at the controls. Only with luck and the expertise of Stern does justice emerge in the end, a bit tarnished but still intact.”
–Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action
From the Hardcover edition.
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The Scotia Widows
Reda Turner of Cumberland, Kentucky, knew coal mining was dangerous. When she was fifteen years old her father died in a coal mine roof collapse. He left behind eleven children in the days before workers’ compensation benefits provided some minimal aid for a dead miner’s family. Reda remembered, “It was hard on Mom. I can remember lots of times when we barely had enough to eat, just gravy for supper and breakfast lots of days.” Tragedy struck again four years later, when Reda’s older brother was electrocuted in the Scotia mine.
When Reda married Dean Turner, her childhood sweetheart, her “fairy tale love,” they left Eastern Kentucky for Detroit, where he found work. They had been living there a few years when they took a family trip back home. While there, Dean decided to apply for work at Scotia so they could stay in Kentucky and he could earn more than he was making in Detroit. Reda “tried to get Dean not to go in the mines, but he said they were paying twenty-six dollars a day and that would be good for our security. He wanted the best for his family.” On March 9, 1976, they had been back in Kentucky for six years.
That morning, after Dean left for work at Scotia, Reda took their children to school and went to her aunt’s house. While she was there, someone called to ask if everything was all right, because they had heard ambulances go by. Reda said everything was fine and went on to the store to buy ham for Dean’s lunch bucket for the next day. She heard the checkout boy say “something about Scotia, but it didn’t dawn on me what he said.” She picked up her lunch items, and when she went to check out she asked him, “Did I hear you say something about Scotia?” He replied, “Yes, they had an explosion up there, and they have some men trapped.” Reda “just went to pieces then.” Her husband, Willie Dean Turner, was thirty-two years old. They had two children.
Vickie Scott heard a man over a CB radio at a friend’s house frantically calling out, “We need help over at Scotia.” She told him to “slow down, take it easy and tell me real slow what happened.” When he excitedly repeated that there was an explosion at Scotia, she hesitantly asked, “What mine was it?” He said it was in a lower mine, so with great trepidation she asked if he knew what section the explosion happened in. He said it was in the Two Southeast Mains section. Vickie “knew that was where my husband was working. I just fell apart right there.” Tommy Scott was twenty-four years old. They had no children.
Carol Combs was cleaning her home about ten miles from the mine when she heard an ambulance go up the road. She gave it no thought until a few minutes later when she was sweeping her porch. A neighbor rushed over to tell her there had been a serious accident at the mine, and she thought Carol should go there. Carol’s husband, Everett Combs, was twenty-eight years old. They had two children.
Some of the miners’ wives were urged to stay at home with loved ones until someone could obtain information about what had occurred at the mine. Diana McKnight waited to hear news of her husband, Larry, and of her brother, Everett Combs, both of whom were still in the mine. Larry was twenty-seven years old. He and Diana had one child.
But Geraldine McKnight did not stay home. She rushed to the mine after her mother called from the hospital to say they were emptying hospital beds for new arrivals because something had happened at Scotia. Geraldine’s husband, Roy McKnight, was known as Bud. He was thirty years old, and he and Geraldine had two children. She had faith that Bud, a big, bull-shouldered giant of a man, a former Army sergeant, would lead the men out alive.
At the mine, Geraldine McKnight and other anxious wives and their families had to walk a mile or so through mud, past ambulances and company vehicles, because the coal company would not let them park their cars on Scotia’s property. They had to wait at the coal company bathhouse, where the miners each day would hoist their regular clothes to the ceiling and change into their mining clothes, steel-toed boots, hard hats, and the heavy leather belts which held their headlamp batteries and small metal emergency breathing devices called self-rescuers. At the end of their shift, the miners would shower off the black coal dust and grime from the mine and change back into their everyday clothes. That day, those regular clothes of the fifteen miners still somewhere underground were hanging above the women in the bathhouse. The wives and families of those fifteen men were told only that there had been an explosion.
The women suffered interminably as time ticked away without any information about their husbands. Scotia did not have a trained mine rescue team, so they had to wait for rescue teams from other companies to arrive. When these teams reached Scotia, they were briefed on what had occurred and then quickly went into the mine on rail cars as far as they could. There they set up a fresh air base and then worked their way on foot, as fast as possible, farther and farther into the mine. Time was their enemy, because the miners trapped somewhere underground were being exposed to the deadly carbon monoxide that follows a coal mine explosion, and their self-rescuers could provide breathable air for only a few hours. As the afternoon turned into the evening with no news from the rescue teams underground, the women at the surface grew ever more fearful that their husbands might not be found before their self-rescuers gave out.
Finally, at ten o’clock that night, a rescue team discovered the body of a dead miner. Word then came to the surface of three more bodies, and later three more were discovered. Some time after that, another rescue team reported that they had located six miners all together behind a partially constructed plastic barricade. At one-twenty the next morning, the bodies of the last two men were located.
About two in the morning, fourteen hours after the explosion, a minister stood on some boxes near the Scotia bathhouse and announced they had found all the men, which temporarily lifted the women’s hopes. Then he added, “I’m sorry to inform you, there are no survivors.” As he read the names of the fifteen men whose bodies had been found, the women shrieked in horror. Some fainted into the arms of their families. Carol Combs collapsed from shock and had to be taken away in an ambulance. She spent the next several days heavily sedated.
The wives of the fifteen miners were now widows. Unfortunately, they would not be the only women to lose their husbands that week to the Scotia mine. As soon as MESA, the Mining Enforcement Safety Administration, arrived, they took control of the Scotia mine. MESA asked for volunteers to accompany some MESA inspectors back into the mine to restore the ventilation, so the government could begin to establish the cause of the Scotia explosion. Then, two days after the March 9 explosion, while three MESA inspectors and ten volunteer miners were down in the mine working on the ventilation, the Scotia mine exploded again, killing the MESA inspectors and eight of the volunteers. Two volunteers working farther away from the blast and closer to the mine entrance escaped without injury. When other rescue teams reached the bodies of the eleven men, twenty-four hours after this second explosion, they found no signs of life. Because of the possibility of a third explosion, these rescue teams were ordered to return to the surface without recovering the eleven bodies. MESA then ordered the Scotia mine sealed.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Gerald M. Stern was a founding partner of the Washington, D.C., law firm Rogovin, Stern & Huge. Prior to that, he was a partner with Arnold & Porter for eleven years, where he was the lead counsel for the survivors of the Buffalo Creek disaster. Before joining Arnold & Porter, he was a trial attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, trying voting discrimination cases in the South. He wrote about those experiences in chapters of two books, Southern Justice and Outside the Law. He is also the author of The Buffalo Creek Disaster and has served as general counsel of Occidental Petroleum Corporation and as special counsel to the United States Department of Justice. Presently, he is a legal consultant and lives in Washington, D.C.
From the Hardcover edition.
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I am one of the Scotia Widows and I appreciate Gerald Stern writing a true account of what happened. This actually did happen and there were so many things he didn't put in there. We felt like we were the ones on trial and had actually done something wrong simply because we had moved on with our lives. I was 23 years old with a 22 month old son....and I made it!!!!! It is a very sad fact that the almighty dollar means more than a human life. Men don't have names...just numbers when it comes to a tragedy like this. My heart goes out to all the others who have lost loved ones in a mining disaster. I am overwhelmed when I hear about one and am consumed until I know the outcome. A Scotia Widow