My temporary home for the last week has been a hotel just off of I-64 at Exit 44 in Beckley, West Virginia. The immediate exit-ramp neighborhood consists of a Hooters, Dairy Queen, IHOP, McDonalds, and several gas stations. When I’m on the road, I try to keep up my daily walking routine, but the sidewalk that hugs this busy thoroughfare is particularly unappealing. Rather than resigning myself to laps around the hotel parking lot, I decided to take my exercise routine in a new direction: the driveways inside the Sunset Memorial Cemetery.
Over the last seven days, I’ve logged 30 miles walking the resting ground for the dearly departed. I stick to the roadways, but every once in a while one of the headstones will catch my attention. I’ve taken a few detours onto the grass to read the etched rock or see the small memento left by a friend. Today, one particular black granite headstone caught my eye. Maybe it was its extra large size, or the two small white picture frames affixed to it, or the coal miner’s symbol of a pickax and shovel etched into the granite.
I walked gingerly across the grass until I was standing directly in front of it. It read:
Robert Dean Fraley “We miss you Papa Bear” December 10, 1953 – September 16, 2007, “Wonderful father, son, brother, uncle and friend to all.”
A few small and weathered mementos had been left at the base of the headstone, including a mini ceramic trophy for the “Best Dad Ever.” I sighed, stood there for a moment, and then trecked back to the pavement to finish my walk. I thought about Mr. Fraley and his family. I wondered about his life…and his death.
The pickaxe and shovel on his headstone meant his family was proud that he was a coal miner. At 53 years young, he may have been a working miner at the time of his death. Did he die at work? Far too many people die from work-related causes in both the U.S and abroad. I really hoped he wasn’t one of the thousands who go to work and never come home. With just a few keyboard strokes and mouse clicks in my hotel room, I found the obituary for Robert Dean Fraley. It said he died “as a result of a coal mining accident.”
Both federal MSHA and the State of West Virginia’s mine safety agency (WVMHST) investigated Mr. Fraley’s death. He was employed by Coalfield Services, Inc. and was working at Arch Coal’s Mingo Logan Mountaineer II mine. His employer had been hired to prep a concrete floor near the mine’s ventilation shaft. The area had a secure-looking handrail barrier around it to protect someone from approaching it and falling down the 300 foot shaft.
Mr. Fraley, a co-worker and foreman began their task just before midnight on September 15. It involved grinding the concrete floor near the shaft to make it level to allow the subsequent installation of automatic closing doors. The work was quite dusty from the finely ground cement in the air, and the carbon monoxide levels (CO) were spiking because of exhaust coming off the gasoline-powered equipment.
The men worked on the project throughout the night, alternating between the grinding job with the dust and CO, and standing near the railing of the ventilation shaft opening. MSHA’s report describes it this way:
As grinding was being conducted, one person would stand next to the protective handrail which separated the work area from the ventilation shaft. Due to natural ventilation within the structure, the dust created by the grinder was less dense near the railing. …At approximately 6:30 a.m., the concrete floor was checked for level and then Spencer [the foreman] walked outside of the structure to avoid the dust. At this time, Fraley was standing next to the railing, and Williams [his co-worker] was operating the grinding machine.
The WVMHST report indicates:
Mr. Williams stated that he had last seen Mr. Fraley as he looked to his rear over his shoulder. Mr. Williams stated that approximately 5 minutes after he last saw Mr. Fraley he heard a sound and looked to his rear and Mr. Fraley was nowhere to be seen.
The crew and some other miners began to search for Mr. Fraley. At about 8:20 am, Mr. Fraley’s body was found at the bottom of the ventilation shaft. Neither the federal or state investigations could determine how or why Mr. Fraley fell to his death.
I had an empty feeling after reading the investigators’ reports. I know it can’t compare to the void felt in the hearts of his daughters Jennifer and Kelli. I know one of them (or both) left the “Best Dad Ever 2009” trophy.