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'Coal miners are smart. They know how to improvise.'

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Probably no one has thought more about coal miners, their families and their lives than Homer Hickam, author of several coal-mining novels, including "Rocket Boys" that became the popular movie "October Sky."

"My heart goes out to the families right now," said Hickam, reached by phone at his home in Huntsville, Ala. "I do know what they're going through."

As a student at Big Creek High School in West Virginia, Hickam recalled the chill of hearing "the sirens going off and the cars roaring by" his school when accidents occurred at the town's mine.

"You would always hope the principal wouldn't come into your classroom and look at you," he said.

His father, who worked his way up to superintendent at Olga Mine Co., lost one eye in a mine accident. His grandfather lost both legs; his uncle suffered a crushed pelvis. But in Coalwood, he said, "that was life."

"Virtually every adult male I knew was a coal miner," said Hickam, a retired NASA engineer who now is a full-time author. "We didn't question it."

Hickam worked in the mines briefly in high school and during summer breaks from studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. But he and his childhood friend, Roy Lee Cook, who also was featured in "October Sky," didn't make a career of the mines.

Cook, 60, recently retired from banking and now owns a coal company in Irmo, S.C.

Cook recalled "several deaths in the mines when I was growing up."

"It occurs to me that people who work or have families who work in coal mines accept the fact that it is a very dangerous profession," said Cook, whose father was seriously injured in the Olga mine when he was caught between two runaway coal cars.

Said Hickam: "I'm sure [the families] are very scared right now. But they are tenacious."

He said families should know "exactly what the rescue teams are doing. Let them know what's going on, because rumors start. Let the families know, immediately."

Hickam's advice to the families: "Definitely do not lose hope. Coal miners are smart. They know how to improvise. They have thought through what they would do if they got trapped. They're just a tough breed."

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 29, 2002) The last three paragraphs of quotes from "October Sky" author Homer Hickam in a story in Friday's editions were erroneously credited to his childhood friend Roy Lee Cook.

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