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Part V

A secret and a promise

This story is the fifth part in the series Patriot Coal: An American Bankruptcy. To begin reading the story from the beginning, jump back to the first part, Take Warning.

March 13th dawned gray over Madisonville, Kentucky. The preceding days had been warm, with highs reaching into the 70s, but there was a chill in the air this morning. Around 9:30 a.m., an icy rain began to fall, dropping the temperature another five degrees. That night, a snowstorm descended on the eastern U.S., a final blast of winter before a milder season emerged.

I ask Richie why he thinks Jernigan told him what he did that day so many years ago. The answer is both simple and complex.

On Saturday, April 30, 1994, Richie’s son Chris took a date to the prom and later attended a drug- and alcohol-free school-sponsored function called Project Prom. He came home around 5 a.m. on Sunday, May 1, and was in bed when a friend woke him up to tag along for a ride while he took his date home.

About five miles from the Richies’ house, Chris’ friend fell asleep at the wheel and the truck veered off the road. Chris, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the truck, which then landed on his spine, causing liver damage, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, loss of kidney function and numerous cuts and bruises. His two friends escaped serious injuries.

Chris was air-lifted to Nashville’s Vanderbilt Hospital where he was given just hours to live. Although he defied the doctors’ expectations, he ended up paralyzed from the waist down. He came home after two months and several surgeries and began to put his life back together, returning to school and considering a career as a therapist. Richie’s UMWA-provided health insurance was instrumental in providing him with a decent quality of life.

“I spent most of my time in the hospital chapel, on my knees,” Mr. Richie told the Peabody Pulse, a company publication. “At one time, there was a chapel full of hard-nosed coal miners on their knees, praying for my son. Union and management united around one purpose. I now understand that both can express love in times of need. Chris’s accident has opened my eyes and opened my heart. It’s the way we should attack every problem.”

Richie says now that he thinks Jernigan felt some sympathy for his plight, especially since his own son-in-law, Donald Wilcox, eventually found himself in the same situation several years later.

Wilcox was driving to work one night during a thunderstorm when, like Chris Richie, he was involved in a bad accident. Vicki Wilcox, Donald’s wife and Charles Jernigan’s daughter, is a registered nurse. She knew immediately upon arriving at the hospital that her husband would never walk again. The couple had two daughters in college and a third in high school. Mrs. Wilcox says that without the UMWA health insurance they had at the time, “We would have been bankrupt and that would have been the end of the story.”

A quadriplegic, Mr. Wilcox now suffers from Myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a type of cancer that causes fatigue, shortness of breath, easy bleeding and frequent infections. Risk factors for MDS include prolonged exposure to chemicals and heavy metals. Wilcox’s treatment includes once-a-week injections that cost $700 each. He worked long enough in the mines to qualify for UMWA health and retirement benefits and receives assistance from Medicare.

If the family were to lose their UMWA insurance, Mrs. Wilcox says the 20 percent deductible they would have to pay for her husband’s weekly shots would be “a killer.”  “Our life together now is very challenging,” she says. “I have a caregiver role and I’m also his advocate. Life, I have come to find out, having almost lost my house and several other things, is not about material possessions or fancy vacations, it’s about love and having someone who cares for you; it’s about family.”

Jernigan died in 2014 at the age of 77 but Mrs. Wilcox confirms some of Richie’s account. She says her father was careful to ensure that the provisions of his retirement from Peabody regarding his and his wife’s health insurance were put in writing in the clearest possible terms so they couldn’t be revoked. “That age group knew it was coming,” she said. “I think it was pretty obvious to them.”

After living for more than a decade after the accident that cost him his dreams of playing baseball for the University of Kentucky, Chris Richie died in a second car accident in 2005. His older brother Brad is a social worker for the state of Kentucky.

Richie had kept his conversation with Jernigan outside the Martwick Coal Mines a secret for nearly 20 years. That weekend he had gone to his son’s gravesite. “I told my son that the truth was coming out today. And I said a prayer.”

It’s not hard to find people affected by the Patriot case in Madisonville. On the same Monday morning I spoke to Richie and “Bud” Lear, three other retired coal miners had gathered at the union’s offices on Route 281 just past an attractive new housing development. They include brothers Johnny Kenny Smith, 63 and 66, and Jackie Clayton, 80. All have different stories but all came to western Kentucky for one reason: to mine coal and make enough money to provide for their families. It wasn’t an easy life, but none of them expressed any regrets about what they did. They just wish they could have some certainty heading into their final chapters.

Johnny and Kenny grew up in historic “Bloody” Harlan County, Kentucky—site of coal-related strikes and skirmishes during the 1930s and setting for FX’s hit TV series “Justified”—before going to work for Peabody. At one point, both brothers worked in the same mining complex. After 40 years of coal mining, Johnny Smith retired from Patriot in 2013, just as the company was going through its first bankruptcy. Kenny was cleaning ice from a slope underground in 1997 when another miner fell against him and knocked him down, injuring his spine and neck, causing him to go on disability and leave coal mining for good. Both men receive pensions and healthcare through the union. In 2016, Kenny was in the hospital 250 days and had two surgeries in two weeks to repair a heart pump that keeps the blood flowing through his body. He’s had four pumps so far. His current one cost $35,000. “I guess I done went over the limit,” he says, gesturing to the pump, which is about the size of a small stereo speaker. “I’m on borrowed time, is all I am. When this runs out, that’s it for me.”

Lear worked in manufacturing for a while before returning to his native Kentucky to work in the mines. He’s been married several times but finally found a relationship that stuck. He’s determined now to provide his wife with the insurance he promised her when they married. “I’ll pay for it as long as I got something to sell,” he said. “Because I made a promise to her when I married her that I would take care of her the best that I possibly could. And I’ll sell everything I’ve got to do that.”

Clayton, who spent nearly 50 years working in coal mining for different outfits, most of that time for Peabody, said he felt betrayed by a company he once held in such high esteem. “When I went to work for Peabody, I thought Peabody was one of the grandest companies in the world,” he said. “But after a few years, they started going the other way and everything. Then in the last, when they filed bankruptcy, I knew exactly what they were going to do, and I felt very betrayed because I knew they was going to try to get rid of retirees, do away with our healthcare, and try to do away with our pension. I felt very betrayed. Because like I said, I was giving them the best part of my years to make them money and let them pay me what I was making.”

Daniel Flatley (@daniel_flatley) is a West Virginia native and a former Marine. He covered politics and government at a newspaper in upstate New York before attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, from which he will graduate in May 2017.

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