Disasters serve to focus the public’s attention on some of the most critical conditions, whether nature or man-made, the effects of which unfortunately claim significant numbers of victims. The author of The Scotia Widows is a trial attorney with intimate knowledge of the kinds of cases that pit the common man against big business and special interests.
The violent explosion in the Scotia coal mine in Eastern Kentucky in 1976 is one of the more egregious examples of corporate failure and the economics of self-interest of mine owners, the dead men’s survivors left to deal with their loss and a non-responsive company unwilling to change conditions that led to the disaster. The first blast was caused by a high concentration of methane gas and coal dust that claimed fifteen lives three and a half miles underground. Two days later, a second explosion took the lives of eleven rescue workers.
For all the notoriety of the tragedy, it was the survivors who must deal with the aftermath, shattered lives, legal restitution and an unequal struggle for parity under the law that finally results in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The obstacles were significant - a hostile judge, the all-or-nothing mentality of the mine owners, withheld critical disclosure by a trial judge, and a pro-coal lead defense lawyer.
The conditions under which the miners labor were equally significant: numerous safety violations, inadequate ventilation, a serious lack of ventilation inspections, and the absence of a trained rescue team. Given the inherent dangers of the miners’ jobs, any of these issues could combine for a potent and deadly cocktail.
The sensationalism of such a disaster captured the attention of the nation for the duration of the story, but this true event is equally vivid and relevant in this small volume, the individual stories of grieving widows elevating their story to one that reaches across the years in common loss and outrage at the indifference and hubris of the powerful.
“Big Daddy Coal” looms large, even in the face of more recent explosions in Utah and Kentucky, regardless of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, proving once again that money and power trump the safety of family men trying to make a living wage and support their families.
Four years later, thanks to their diligent attorney, the widows were successful. Stern achieved a settlement not only for the original victim’s wives, but also for a number of the families who lost loved ones in the second explosion. Stern makes a compelling case for the fifteen women at the heart of this story. Their dreams destroyed by the disaster at the Scotia mine in 1976, these widows rallied against the harsh blow life had dealt them - and succeeded against incredible odds with the aid of a determined legal representative.
As greed and corruption sought to triumph over the few, these fifteen widows stood up against the injustice of their loss, reclaiming their right to the American dream. In this drama, the lawyer is the supporting player, the widows the indisputable stars.