After the dust settled in Hawk’s Nest Tunnel and the dying began

June 4, 2011

Faces, The Past

Q&A

If you live in West Virginia, ‘the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster’ is a phrase you likely have heard, but whose details may be somewhat fuzzy. I admit, this was the case with me before I began interviewing David Pushkin. If you live outside West Virginia, it’s more than likely you may know next to nothing about one of the most horrific industrial disasters in American history, whose repercussions and lessons – both learned and unlearned – are still being seen today.

David Pushkin

Pushkin, a West Virginia native who now calls New York City home, has been raising funds for an “investigative documentary” on what happened inside the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the early 20th century and the many lives lost and families damaged as a result. This is no musty history lesson – the explosion that killed 29 miners at a Massey Coal mine at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia in April 2011, is an echoing replay of what happens when the corporate bottom line trumps worker safety.

Pushkin will speak at a fundraising event at the Culture Center in the state Capitol Complex in Charleston, W.Va., from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, June 6. The event features music by the film’s music directors, Michael Lipton and Tristram Lozaw, and West Virginia author Denise Giardina, who’ll speak about the presence of the Hawk’s Nest tragedy in her novel, “Saints and Villains.” Pushkin will preview materials from the film, to be called simply “The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel.”

Learn more about the project at www.hawksnestmovie.org. I interviewed Pushkin via phone from his home in New York ,where he has taught art at Columbia University and the New College of Hofstra University and now teaches at a high school on the city’s Lower East Side. He is pursuing a doctoral degree in a new discipline called Fine Arts Research or the field – appropriately enough – of video narrative. ~ Douglas Imbrogno

A worker wreathed in deadly dust at the mouth of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel project.

Earlier this year, Pushkin raised more than $13,000 with a Kickstarter campaign to start the process of gathering historic footage and equipment for the documentary, which he estimates will cost about $400,000. Here’s how he describes the film on his Kickstarter  and documentary website pages:

“In 1930, seeking work and money to send home to their families, fathers, sons and brothers from all across West Virginia and neighboring states rushed to Union Carbide for employment. Two-thirds of these workers were African Americans, young and old, all poor.  Unbeknownst to the workers, the mountain was full of silica, a mineral that the company needed to make strong steel alloy. What started as a drilling project to divert water to a hydro- power plant soon became a secret silica mine. Within weeks, the illness was consuming the men who were all doomed to die. Union Carbide then buried the laborers in mass unmarked graves near a cornfield, rarely notifying their families …

“The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel” presents the devastating tale of the worst industrial disaster in American history. In 1932, it is believed that nearly two thousand laborers desperate for work died of acute silicosis due to corporate greed and negligence during the drilling of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia. For 80 years, their deaths were covered up by the powerful corporation who hired them, Union Carbide. These poor laborers (some as young as 16 years old) died needless deaths and lay in unmarked graves unknown to loved ones who still mourn their loss …”

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WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: How did you first become interested in the story of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel?
DAVID PUSHKIN: I was hired in the early ‘90s to do some work for the B’Nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston. It was my first chance to work in stained glass. After that commission was finished in 1994, my father passed away and I was spending a lot of time down in Charleston. I drove out to Hawk’s Nest – I chose the Hawk’s Nest Overlook as a place to mourn the loss of my father. I first became aware of the story in 1994. I started designing a stained glass memorial to the people who died at Hawk’s Nest.
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Q: How did you go from that early interest to an ambitious documentary project?

A: I have a very good friend who used to be a film critic for the Village Voice – Elliott Stein. I was telling Elliott about projects I had been working on prior to becoming a full-time academic. I told him about the Hawk’s Nest project. Being a film critic, he suggested someone should make a documentary film about this event. I took him up on his challenge.

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Q:  You describe the film as an “investigative documentary.” What does that mean for what you are attempting to tell?
A: It’s not intended to be a muck-raking film. The most impactful aspect of the history for me has to do with the price that society pays for progress – the price that our workers pay for taking minerals out of the ground and the way that we do business in this country and globally. I think that has to be talked about. I don’t think we’re trying to uncover a mystery. I think we’re just trying to make history transparent.

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Q: There is still some question over how many people died from digging the tunnel. What are the estimates, low to high?

A: The official death toll based on existing death certificates is 798. Martin Cherniak estimates the death toll as much higher based on the number of men exposed over time to the dust. Rush Holt was the first to claim that he personally believed that “over two thousand workers were doomed to die” from exposure to the deadly silica dust in the tunnel.

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Q: The larger part of the deaths were African-American workers. Is race a component in the story?
A: The racial component is a big part of the story. I don’t think that the workers were killed because they were black, however I do think that there was a preference for hiring migrant workers. Due to the contractor being located in Charlottesville, Va., the jobs were advertised in a part of the country that was full of black laborers. Many of these men came from cities such as Atlanta and Richmond and had been professionals, such as writers and musicians.

According to H.C.White, the undertaker’s son who remembers his father’s work for the contractor, the fact that more than two thirds of the men digging the tunnel were black also made the job of returning their corpses to their families more difficult. No one had any money. Our reality now, is that there are several hundred unmarked African American burial sites spread between Fayette and Nicholas Counties that are full of victims from the Hawks Nest Tunnel.

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Q: The Workmen’s Compensation Act arose out of hearings and investigations in the aftermath of this disaster, as you note. Where does the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel story fit in the history of industrial regulation in America, then and now?
A: Workmen’s Compensation was designed in 1936 as a response to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster – 2011 is the 75th anniversary of the Workman’s Compensation Act. The story of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tells the story of the beginning of industrial regulation in the United States. I think we’ve reached a critical chapter in that history right now.

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Q: How do you mean?
A: Today, in an attempt to cut the federal budget, many industrial regulations are being reviewed and in some cases ignored. A lot of legislation that covers workplace safety is now old – if business leaders feel that that regulation gets in the way of their ability to create profit, then we have a problem. To say that Workmen’s Compensation is anti-business misses the point of Workmen’s Compensation to begin with – to make everyone’s workplace safe.

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Q: You draw comparisons between the corporate climate that led to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster and to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion at a Massey Coal mine that killed 29 miners. An investigator wrote of a culture at Massey “in which wrongdoing became acceptable,where deviation became the norm.”
A: You still have management entities trying to increase profits by lessening safety regulations like AT Massey Coal. Then, you have historical markers in the state that speak to the fact that [worker safety] legislation came about from the same type of incidents almost a century ago.  [Editor’s note: Because of repercussions from that mine disaster, Massey was recently bought and merged into Alpha Natural Resources]. I can’t differentiate between centuries – the 19th, the 20th and the 21st centuries – everybody seems to be misbehaving in the same way.

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Q: West Virginia certainly seems to find itself on the frontlines of labor issues and disasters sometimes.
A: I think you could say that West Virginia has always been a bit of a battleground for labor history.

Materials on the documentary’s website, note that the film will tell tales of workers killed in the tunneling operation such as the Jones family. Charlie Jones and his three sons Cecil, Owen, and Shirley Jones all died on the job. Charlie Jones, seen gasping for breath in archival footage, says he has silicosis. Cecil’s widow Doreen and their two children, Cecil Jr. and Patricia, explain that the money that the company gave the family as compensation “barely paid for any of the medical expenses and would not provide (the children) with enough food to survive.” The youngest brother, Shirley, died at age eighteen. He begged his mother to “find out what killed” him. The first documented autopsy of a victim of the tragedy was performed on Shirley Jones. When the doctor removed Shirley’s lungs, he referred tothem as “solid glass” and determined that Shirley, who had only worked in the tunnel for a few weeks, had developed “acute silicosis that should have taken thirty years to advance to this stage.”

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Q: Talk about some of the stories you plan to touch on in the documentary.
A: There are many stories to be told. There’s the story of the Jones Family, who lost, I guess it was four men. The Jones Family, while they were sick, testified in Washington, D.C., at the hearings that followed the tunnel disaster. There are also surviving family members of the unknown workers and we’re searching for those people now. There’s also the story of the gravesites being cleaned up in Nicholas County right now.  [Editor’s note: Charlotte and George Neilan, publishers of the Nicholas County Chronicle, who are taking charge of restoring the grave sites of many of the unknown Hawks Nest Tunnel workers, will be at the June 6 Cultural Center event.]

There’s also the story of the Workmen’s Compensation Act that followed the careers of Rush Holt and Homer Holt. Rush Holt was a liberal senator from West Virginia who helped bring about Worker’s Compensation and bring the hearings out in Washington, D.C. His son is currently a representative from New Jersey and very active on environmental issues.

Then there’s the story of Homer Holt, originally the regional attorney for Rhinehart-Dennis, which was the contractor for the tunnel digging. Then, he became a Union Carbide employee, then attorney general for the state of West Virginia, then governor. He was the governor responsible for covering the story of the deaths up.

Some of the other stories include the stories of writers and poets who wrote novels and poetry about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster. Their work has become an integral part of the fabric of the story. An original novel called “Hawk’s Nest” was published in the late ‘30s by Yale University Press by Hubert Skidmore – who later died in a mysterious fire on his farm. After Skidmore, the story was picked up by Muriel Rukeyser in “The Book of the Dead” (1938). Apparently, news of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel was national news at the time. It was on the cover of TIME magazine – it was a huge deal. By the end of the 1930s, it was sort of swept under the rug. It was just kind of erased.

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Q: What are your hopes for where the documentary shows?
A: I think the whole film should run one hour and we’d like the ultimate venue to be a television documentary series like P.O.V. or one of those shows – Independent Lens, the American Experience. It’s a non-profit project. Our sponsor is the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in Lewisburg. We’d like to see the finished piece find as many venues as possible.

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Q: You don’t seem too hopeful about the lessons we’re supposed to have learned from such industrial disasters.
A: History is cyclical. I’ve heard this time period we’re living in now referred to as a ‘post-humanist’ period, a less socially conscious time period. But at the same time, we have social media now. So, we can have public debates about stories that never would have been known to the public in the past.

I think it’s important for all of us to try and transcend the moment and realize history’s ongoing and we’re a part  of it, whether we like it or not. We each have a role to play in history that’s larger than our own lives – maybe that’s something we call all do, even in a ‘post-humanist’ age.

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MORE READING on the HAWK’S NEST TUNNEL DISASTER:
“Witness at Hawk’s Nest” novel, a profile by Paul Nyden
Books and Articles on the Disaster in W.Va. state archives
Tunnel Talk: The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster
City Native Returns to Promote Hawk’s Nest Film, Charleston Gazette
Summersville volunteers clean graveyards of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel victims

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