Patty and Gary Quarles lost their only child on April 5, 2010. Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, was part of the crew operating the longwall mining machine at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine. He died that day in a massive coal dust explosion along with 28 other men. Patty’s and Gary’s life will never be the same. The lives of all the families and close friends of those 29 coal miners changed forever that day. They’ve suffered losses that few of us will ever understand. A recent story in the Washington Post entitled “After Massey mine disaster killed their son, settlement of millions is worth little,” captures some of the heartbreak experienced by a family whose son, spouse or sibling is killed on-the-job. It describes the pain of losing the simple things like supper time together, father-son turkey hunting, and listening to music. But a 2,700 word article will never be able to tell the whole story. I’d like to add my own chapter.
I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Patty and Gary Quarles, as well as Clay Mullins and Betty Harrah who both lost brothers at the Upper Big Branch mine. They’d traveled from southern West Virginia to Washington DC to plead with lawmakers to improve our nation’s worker safety laws. Fighting for a better law won’t bring their loved ones back from the grave, but these individuals are able to look beyond their own pain to try to make mining safe for other workers.
When I heard Patty and Gary talk about hiring a lawyer—something they’d never done before—money from Massey was the last thing on their minds. After waiting for nearly a week to learn whether their son was dead or alive in the mine, they were exhausted. They were overcome with grief and still in shock. Their son had very recently divorced and there were a few unsettled issues regarding the division of property. At a time when their lives were already turned upside down, someone with Massey Energy told the Quarles that they might not have control over their son’s funeral and burial arrangements. This person, who was probably just trying to be helpful, suggested the following scenario: because their grandchildren were minors and living with their mother, their son’s ex-wife may technically have control over those arrangement. The Quarles didn’t know what to do.
“We were in shock,” Gary told me. “We only wanted to bury our son.”
I tried to understand. I thought about their lives spinning out of control with the explosion, the rescue efforts and the week-long wait at the mine while the miners’ bodies were recovered. The only small thing they could control was planning a funeral and burying their son.
Patty and Gary didn’t know where to turn for answers. Someone told them to make the hour-long drive to Beckley, WV and talk to someone at the State courthouse. They did, but the only advice offered was: “hire a lawyer.” They were distraught.
They stood on the steps of the Beckley Courthouse, looked across the street and saw the sign: The Wooton Law Firm. That’s where they headed. Not with dollars dancing in their heads. They simply wanted to bury their son. That’s why Patty and Gary Quarles met with a lawyer.
Ultimately, their ex-son’s wife did not try to take control of the funeral arrangements. Patty and Gary Quarles were able to plan their son’s funeral and arrange a burial to meet all their wishes. But when your only son is a victim of the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years and his employer is Don Blankenship’s Massey Energy, it’s not surprising that other big matters emerge in which legal counsel was needed. For example, just a few weeks after the funerals, Massey Energy tried to meet privately with each family and offered each of them $3 million. I’m sure when Massey Energy delivered their offer it was accompanied with legal mumbo-jumbo. It would be wise to have a lawyer looking out for your interest. Goodness knows that Massey had a slew of them looking out for theirs.
But most of the families didn’t take Massey’s $3 million offer. It was too soon and too much was unknown. Over the next 20 months, State and federal investigators conducted witness interviews and combed through evidence. Their conclusions were unanimous: the explosion was preventable and caused by a mining company that put profits ahead of workers’ lives.
Those reports may have answered some questions but they didn’t necessarily bring closure to the families. Meanwhile Alpha Natural Resources had purchased Massey Energy at the end of 2010. These new owners were eager to get on a path forward. Patty and Gary Quarles were part of a group of 13 families who engaged in mediation in January 2012 to settle their claims against Massey (now Alpha.) They were sequestered for four days with their attorneys, company lawyers and a top-tier mediator. Many hours of discussion and debate ensured and a settlement was reached for the participating families.
Under West Virginia law a circuit judge had to approve the settlement. Gary told me that he and his wife had to stand before the judge and promise to keep the terms of the agreement confidential. If not, the judge said they could be held in contempt of court.
“We are law-abiding people, and we’ll follow the law,” Gary said.
The Washington Post story suggests that the Quarles might have been overwhelmed by the final settlement amount, with Gary on the verge of passing out. I heard a different story which didn’t suggest such a big dollar amount that someone would faint, but merely a mother and father exhausted by a process that forces them to say “son, this is what you’re worth.”
No parent should have to do that, and if companies respected life as much as the almighty dollar, they wouldn’t have to.