Second in a three-part series
HELPER Nelda Erickson wanted her husband Don back.
Wendy Black's husband, Dale, tried to reach Don and five other trapped miners. Both men perished last year in separate collapses Aug. 6 and Aug. 16 that killed nine men inside the Crandall Canyon Mine.
"Dale would have died trying, no matter what," Black said. "It was terrifying in there."
A year later, Erickson still reaches for her husband's shirt to smell him again, to remember him and feel some comfort. Even now she can barely talk about Don without crying.
Black still speaks out loud to her late husband, whose initial "D" she tattooed on her ring finger as a visible gesture of lasting solidarity with her high school sweetheart. "I'm married for life," she said. The wedding band is now on her other hand.
Black uses one word to describe what life's been like this past year.
"Lonely," she said, sitting on a couch in her living room, a photo of Dale over her shoulder. "We miss him every day. He always used to call me 'Babe."'
In the aftermath of Crandall Canyon, so much has changed in the lives of those left behind. So much has stayed the same for much of the rest of the world.
A lone security guard still keeps watch over the deserted grounds at the mine, which during the repeated failed rescue attempts its owner-operator called an "evil mountain." The mine that for years had men take from it now was taking the men. No one knows when, or if, their bodies will be returned to their loved ones.
Besides Erickson and Black, Crandall Canyon claimed Kerry Allred, Brandon Phillips, Manuel Sanchez, Jose Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan Villa, Brandon Kimber and Gary Lynn "Gibb" Jensen.
Like Black, Kimber and Jensen died in the rescue attempt. The other six met their fate in the first collapse.
While Crandall Canyon has since shut down, its co-owner and operator, Bob Murray, continues to run other mines in Utah and the rest of the country.
Just last week, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed leveling fines of more than $1.8 million against the Crandall mine operators and engineering firm, numbers that are unprecedented in mining history.
The families, too, have filed multiple lawsuits, which remain in limbo much like any potential recovery of the men's bodies.
More than 100 congressional bills have been proposed in the wake of the disaster, political leaders have called for safety reforms, and the finger-pointing has been endless. Utah convened its own mine safety commission and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. vowed to shepherd new policies and procedures through the creation of a new office and a new director.
In the meantime, coal production is down in Utah, as is mine-related employment.
Life continues in Huntington, the town at the epicenter of the disaster, but the impact of Crandall Canyon is never far from the collective consciousness of the community, according to Emery County Sheriff LaMar Guymon.
"The families, I am sure, will have this embedded, engraved in their minds forever because of the losses they have suffered," he said.
"If you watch them, they're still in the grieving process at this point ... You don't know what to do or what to say, other than just to give them space and fulfill whatever requests they come to you with. Some of them just need to talk some of them just need to ask questions," Guymon said. "Widows have a tough time adjusting. There's a lot of I don't know there's a lot of things."
Guymon's crew will probably stand guard again as family members gather during a private ceremony Wednesday near the mine. At the site there's a walkway in place that leads up to a new monument between two towering pine trees, meant to commemorate the nine lives lost here.
"Time is a great healer," said Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon. "Time stood still a year ago. Literally for two weeks or more, time stood still.
"Life does go on," she added. "I don't think it has for the families."
Love and loss
For Wendy Black, whose husband died trying to rescue the six trapped miners, life has been about missing her husband, who is always in her thoughts.
The two were married for 25 years. Together they raised a son, Corey, now 18, and daughter, Ashley, now 23, who is married and has moved out of the house.
"Ashley really struggles," Black said. "She was 'Daddy's little girl."'
It says as much on Dale's headstone, which also reads, "Corey, Dad's little buddy."
Corey keeps a lot inside. Except his career plans. He will not mine.
"No, not no more," Corey said.
He used to think he'd go underground for the higher wages mining can bring.
"When you live around here, that's all you have, that and the power plant," said Corey, who lives at home, works two jobs and plans on taking classes to learn how to weld.
His mother chimes in, recalling how her own father died in a mine when she was 8. "We're going to stop it now," she said about Corey not becoming a miner.
"I thought it was safe," Corey said.
His father didn't talk much about the dangers, particularly at Crandall Canyon. Corey has since heard otherwise. "I didn't know it was that bad," he said.
In fact, there were two "bounces" in March 2007
and one just three days before the Aug. 6 collapse. The reality was, the men were "deep" mining beneath a mountain of rock, 2,000 feet below the surface at times. A bounce meant the mountain was shifting as workers emptied veins of coal.
Corey calls mining an "honorable" job, but, scared of the same fate that claimed his father and grandfather, he'd now rather work in a fast-food restaurant for minimum wage than dig for coal.
Wendy Black and families of other Crandall Canyon victims are suing for more answers into what happened and why. If she's successful, her lawsuit may also yield damages that will take the place of Dale's income.
Recent reports from the Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration have provided some information, with finger-pointing directed at MSHA, at engineers who approved the mine plan and at the mine operator.
With the lawsuit comes renewed anger. And when Black gets mad, she talks to Dale.
"'Why did you have to leave me by myself?"' she asks him. "He was the strong person in the family."
They used to golf together. They went four-wheeling a lot. They lived for visits to the desert.
Dale loved to hunt and at about this time of year he'd be getting ready for that. Hunting would take him away from home for days at a time, but he'd always return. To Black, it feels at times a little like he's just gone away in the name of the hunt, and that he'll be back.
"I think about him constantly," she said. "It's almost like he's really not gone."
Weekends are the worst. They almost never spent one at home.
"When he was done with work, we were gone," Black said.
That's how it was since 1984, when Dale went to work in the Crandall Canyon Mine. His headstone also reads, "Dale jumped into life and never touched bottom."
Staying put, moving on
Dale is buried next to the grave of his father, Roscoe, , which he visited the night before Aug. 16, Wendy Black said.
There were other unusual things that happened before or on that day. Dale usually rode with someone to work. He drove himself that day. He never wore a "flak" jacket, a type of body armor worn by bull riders but he did that day. And for some reason, he left his lunch bucket at home.
Dale died of blunt force trauma to the head and neck. Two others died and several were injured.
Unlike the families of the six miners Dale was trying to rescue, Black was able to touch her husband one more time and say "goodbye" to his physical self.
"He's not there," she said, pointing at his grave where the rectangle of grass over his coffin still hasn't blended with its surroundings. "He's with us wherever we go he's doing something fun."
Her home is about a half mile from the cemetery, where she has plots for herself, Corey and Ashley. Despite the temptation to change her surroundings, to escape some of the cruel "gossip" from the less sensitive, overly presumptive members of her community, Black is staying put with her son and three dogs.
"This is my home," she said.
Nelda Erickson feels she can't stay at her small Helper home anymore. She has no family here. Her house has become an island close to a set of noisy railroad tracks, where cars filled with coal often pass.
She described this past winter as the worst of her life.
"I just can't do it down here by myself anymore," Erickson said recently while cleaning out her house with her son, Cody Olsen, and daughter, Amanda Romero. She's moving to a city about an hour away where she does have family who can help her cope.
"Don did everything," Olsen said.
A lot of those things he did may have seemed little, like shoveling snow or fixing sprinklers, but they added up quickly.
"He took care of me," Erickson added.
Reality still plays tricks on her daughter.
"There's not a day that goes by you don't think about him," Romero said. "All of a sudden it dawns on you, he's not coming home."
For Erickson, this past year has meant getting through a series of firsts without her husband birthdays, holidays, a family reunion in June. Romero described a recent hot Wednesday in July at her mother's house as one of the hardest, having to sort through Don's things.
"Everything is still the same," Romero said.
Even Don's pillow on the couple's bed was off limits to visiting family members, including grandchildren.
"I wanted his smell to be on the pillow," she said.
Erickson left the house for a while on that recent Wednesday, and Romero stepped in to sort items.
"I didn't want her doing it," Romero said. Cologne, toothbrush, hairbrush it was all still right where he left it a year ago. "It hurts," Romero added.
Romero and Erickson have visited the sealed mine together. Unless someone can come up with a plan approved by MSHA to go after the remains of the six men, it's where they'll stay.
"I go up there quite a bit," Erickson said. "I just have a comfort feeling up there."
"We know he's there," Romero added. She described a "calming" feeling coming over her and her mother on their first visit.
But Erickson has been much less active since last August. She didn't decorate for Christmas. She didn't go out much.
"I didn't want to do anything," she said.
"She was a hermit," her son noted.
Hearing a certain song, usually country music, reminds Erickson of her late husband.
"I don't know if it gets any easier," she said.
The Aug. 6 anniversary will be hard. Erickson will attend the ceremony to dedicate a monument near the closed mine entrance.
Like Black, she too has a pending lawsuit. She's adamant in thinking that all of the deaths could have been prevented if key people had made better decisions. Erickson has thanked families of those rescuers who were injured or gave their lives.
"They are heroes to us," she said. "I'm so sorry that it took their loved ones, too.
"My husband would have done the same thing," Erickson said.
"They're all family out there," Olsen added.
But now Erickson needs more than ever to be near her immediate family.
As one more train rumbled by shaking the house and drowning out voices, she said she won't miss that. For her, it's time to move on."It's so hard to leave my home, where my life revolved around Don," she said. "I know Don would be first to say, 'Go, go be with your family."'