By HOPPY KERCHEVAL
MORGANTOWN -- The tragedy at Hawks Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge is the worst industrial disaster in the country's history, yet it's not a story commonly known, even in our own state.
Coal mine accidents stand out like jagged scars, perhaps because of the sudden brutality of an explosion or the precision of the death toll. Hawks Nest, on the other hand, was more akin to a ravaging virus that was spoken of in hushed tones.
In March, 1930 Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation began a major project near Gauley Bridge in Fayette County to redirect the New River through a three-mile long tunnel to a hydro-electric dam that would supply electricity to Carbide factories.
The men who dug the tunnel worked 10 hours a day, six days a week in clouds of silica dust with no protective breathing devices or even face masks. They only used water to tamp down the dust when inspectors showed up because "wet drilling" mucked up the machinery and slowed the work.
Epidemiologist Dr. Martin Cherniack wrote the definitive history of the tragedy. In "The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster," Cherniack concludes that 764 men-most of the black--died as a result of their work at Hawks Nest from 1930-31. However, others believe as many as half of the 2,400 men who worked there died, most from acute silicosis, a lung disease caused by breathing the silica dust.
Now there is a new book that gives faces and voices to the tragedy. In "Witness at Hawks Nest," author Dwight Harshbarger tells the story through the eyes of a fictional character -- Orville Orr -- while staying true to the facts of the disaster.
Orr, a World War I veteran who has lost his job at a Kettle, West Virginia car dealership because of the depression, gets a letter from an old war buddy, Bullhead McCloud, inviting Orr to work as a sheriff's deputy at the tunnel site. Orr is responsible for rousting men from company-provided shanties every morning to make sure they report for work.
At first, Orr is thrilled with making $5 a day for what is pretty easy work, but Orr soon learns the tunnel construction is extremely dangerous and deadly. Foreman push crews to advance 22 feet a day in the tunnel to meet deadlines, sacrificing the safety and health of workers.
Men begin to die -- a few at first -- but as the numbers grow the company devises a plan to quietly dispose of the bodies while keeping the safety problems hidden. McCloud recruits Orr to haul the dead to a Summersville undertaker who, for a fee, buries the men in a cornfield, sometimes with only a cornstalk twisted into a cross to mark the graves.
Even if you know what happened at Hawks Nest, the book is a page turner since Harsbarger cleverly draws the reader into Orville Orr's life. Orr must come to terms with the conflicts over loyalty to his friend, his sense of duty and the need for a job with his increasing concern over the callous treatment of fellow human beings by the company and its management and the subsequent cover-up.
If you don't know the Hawks Nest story you can still be satisfied by the book. Harshbarger allows the events to unfold so the reader learns what happened at Hawks Nest at the same time as Orville.
Harshbarger's formal training as a psychologist has evidently given him insights into the human condition that make his characters complex and fascinating. His book has heroes and villains, love and loss, triumph and tragedy.
His story about one of the great disasters in America will leave you wondering how a company's obsession could obfuscate human decency, but also give you hope that even under the most challenging of circumstances, the common man is capable of remarkable courage.
To learn more about the Hawks Nest disaster, Harsbarger and his book, go to witnessathawksnest.com
Kercheval is vice president of operations for MetroNews and the host of Talkline, which has become a signature program of the network.