Robert Burns hasn't been able to walk since the day 30 years ago when a chunk of rock fell on his spine as he toiled on hands and knees in a West Virginia coal mine near the Maryland line.
The 1980 mishap that put him in a wheelchair was "just freak," he said. "I was in the wrong place, that was it."
This week Burns, like many here in Western Maryland's rolling coal country, has closely tracked news of the West Virginia mine explosion that killed at least 25 miners.
Burns, 58, isn't blaming mine operator Massey Energy Co., despite reports of serious violations at its Upper Big Branch mine in the months before Monday's blast. Accidents happen, he says, adding that he understands why miners accept the risks.
"It's a good, steady job," he said, especially when the few alternatives in the region mostly pay minimum wage.
Today, these hills and hollows yield much less coal than in decades past. And the 34 active mines in Garrett and Allegany counties — all but two of them strip-mining operations — employ barely 400, a far cry from the 1800s and early 1900s when laborers came in droves from Wales and elsewhere with picks and shovels.
Nationally, Maryland is a bit player in coal production — its mines produced 2.8 million tons in 2008 compared with West Virginia's 158 million tons — but coal still plays a key part in the economy and culture in this corner of the state.
Just about everyone, it seems, has worked at a mine or knows someone who did, or still does. The tragedy in West Virginia, the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in 25 years, has struck a chord with Westernport residents who feel a kinship with victims' families.
"You feel for them; you have to," said Roger Brashear, a ruddy 65-year-old who operated strip mines for three decades in Maryland and has a son in the business. "It's not just that miner. It's his mother, it's his daughter, son, brother. We've all been there."
In 1949, when Brashear was a boy, his brother-in-law died in a mine explosion. His elder brother, Tim, then 17 or 18, was knocked unconscious. "When he came to," Brashear recalled, "he got ahold of the other bodies and drug them out of the mine."
Brashear is regularly reminded of the life-altering potential of coal mines. Burns is married to Brashear's daughter, and they live just down the hill.
Danny Wilson, a heavy-equipment operator and carpenter who works for Brashear, has relatives at one of Maryland's two active deep mines, operated by ARJ Construction. His brothers Steve and Jim, and his nephew, Jimmy Joe, work underground at the mine, just off Route 36 in the George's Creek coal corridor.
"I worry about it, just that they'll be safe, make it home every day," Wilson said. The West Virginia incident only "makes you think about it more."
Wilson, who is 40 and has a bushy red mustache, said he spoke to one of his brothers about the disaster, but "he didn't say too much about it. Maybe he just doesn't want to think about it."
Since 2005, the mine has had 13 injuries that resulted in employees missing work, according to a federal database.
Wilson said his relatives earn $20 or more per hour, top dollar around here. "The only other good job," he said, is working for the sprawling paper mill in Luke, "and it's pretty hard to get on there."
Even with modern safety advances, mining is dirty, risky work whether done above ground or below. Four coal miners have died in Maryland since 1996. The two most recent deaths occurred in 2007 at a strip mine in Barton.
Mike Wilt, 37, and Dale Jones, 52, were working in the coal pit when an unstable "highwall" collapsed, raining some 93,000 tons of rock and material on their heavy-equipment vehicles.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the operator, Tri-Star Mining Inc., for violations that it said contributed to the accident. Tri-Star paid $105,000 in fines as part of a settlement.
"Surface mining is dangerous; I'm not going to sit here and tell you it isn't," Brashear said.
Last year, 11 of 18 coal-mining deaths nationwide were at surface mines, according to a federal report.
Yet that same report hailed an all-time low in U.S. mine fatalities, a decrease attributed to greater emphasis on safety and enforcement of beefed-up mining laws. The Upper Big Branch disaster alone has put 2010's nationwide total above last year's figure.
In this part of Maryland, George's Creek flows briskly from Frostburg southwest to Westernport, where it empties into the Potomac River. Westernport got its name because it was the westernmost stretch of the Potomac that was navigable.
High hopes for the region's coal production predate the nation's founding. In 1755, George Washington extolled the creek's coal basin for harboring "the fuel of the future," with sufficient mineral wealth to "astonish the countries of the Old World," according to the Maryland Coal Mine Mapping Project, a venture of Frostburg State University and state government.
Commercial mining began in the 1800s, and mines sprang up along the creek, pronounced "crick" locally. Statewide production peaked between 1900 and 1918 at up to 5 million tons a year, the Maryland Department of the Environment says, nearly double recent yields.
Deep mining declined after World War II, and strip or surface mining increased as attention turned to shallower coal seams. But just as deep mines polluted streams, surface mines caused erosion and acid drainage. Since 1955, a series of state environmental laws have been enacted, as have various safety measures meant to protect miners.
On Wednesday afternoon, Brashear stood atop his family's wind-swept Hampshire Hill property overlooking an active strip mine at the edge of his land. He pointed to the "safety bench," a method of enlarging the pit in steps to make a collapse less likely.
This mine, which he leases to Tri-Star, covers an area the size of four football fields. So far, the mine has gone 40 feet deep, and it might reach a depth of 90 feet during its expected 20-year life. Above the pit sat a heap of shiny black coal, ready to be hauled to a nearby power plant; a bulldozer clanked down into the pit, pushing away dirt to expose more coal.
Brashear has strip-mined much of his 700 acres over the years, though it's difficult to tell because earlier pits have been reclaimed by grassy meadows where his 75 cows graze. But looking out at the surrounding hills, five other active strip mines were clearly visible in spots where stands of trees have given way to turned earth.
And there was another mine just out of sight. That is the surface operation where Brashear's son, Jeff, drives a heavy truck most evenings, earning $30 an hour, counting benefits.
Back at the family home, Brashear's wife, Darlene, said she was delighted by her son's job despite the danger. Her comments illustrate the sometimes complicated relationship people here have with coal.
"The way I see it, coal mining has always been dangerous," she said. "It's always going to be dangerous. I don't care how much technology you have."
In her view, the West Virginia explosion was both tragedy and accident.
"Accidents are going to happen in a coal mine," she said. "I think every coal miner who goes to work knows this might be his last day. It's always in the back of his mind, but he can't dwell on it because if he did he wouldn't go to work."
Though her son works aboveground, she knows his job has its perils. Yet, far from opposing his effort to get hired, she offered to help any way she could.
"Because he had to have a job," she explained with a shrug, "and it's the only one around here. No one else is hiring."
Does she worry about him?
"No, sir. He knows what he's doing."