MORGANTOWN — Zach Harrah’s birthday is Friday.
It should be a happy day, but it’s going to be hard to celebrate this 7th birthday.
“He doesn’t have a Daddy to go home to tonight,” Bill Stewart said.
Steven Harrah was one of 29 coal miners who died on April 5 in the Raleigh County mine explosion.
That was why on Wednesday, before Stewart coached his Mountaineers through a spring workout at Mountaineer Field, he gathered his players and had them sign a West Virginia football jersey for Zach Harrah.
It’s why across the state on the very same day there was a campaign to send the mourning child birthday cards, a campaign to bring some cheer in a life that will go one with a huge void that no child should have to endure.
Shortly after Stewart’s players signed the jersey, the coach announced that the Mountaineers would wear a helmet in the Blue-Gold spring game with a decal to honor the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch disaster.
The decal will be a white circle with a black No. 29 in the middle of the circle. It will be worn in the spring game and throughout the season.
“We will wear that proudly in honor of those men,” Stewart said after his practice. “We dedicate the season to the miners.”
The disaster, of course, hit the entire state hard, casting a dark cloud of grief from Wheeling to Princeton, from Charleston to Kaiser and from Parkersburg to Hedgesville.
And it was felt deeply by Stewart, who nearly 40 years ago lost an uncle in a coal mining accident.
Millard D. Williams, whom everyone called Buss, had married into the family, marrying Stewart’s aunt, whose name was Thelma.
They lived in Tunnelton and ran a farm. Then one day, when out doing the chores, Buss Williams came across a vein of coal running through his land. At first he and his wife mined it, pulling out enough for the heat that got them through the winters.
“It was two-man operation, just him and her,” Stewart said. “You could see on her wedding band, they didn’t have any jewel in it, where it was worn from the pick and the shovel. They get the coal and bring it back in a wheelbarrow.”
They were an honest, hard-working couple, but eventually they turned the mine into a business.
By 1961 there were 40 people working the mine, including Buss Williams.
The way Stewart now tells the story, he had a heart of gold, not coal, but it was not a strong heart and one day, while down in the mine, something happen.
Buss Williams collapsed, just fell over.
He did so in front of a motor cart that ran over him.
He was 49.
So, Bill Stewart, the big time West Virginia football coach, knew something about have coal dust on your britches. He knew about swinging the pick despite blistered hands and about spending more time than you’d like where the sun doesn’t shine.
And then, on April 5, for what the 100th, the 1,000th time, whatever, there was a mine disaster.
It touched him deeply, deep enough that when they had the memorial service in Charleston, he was on hand and brought with him and WVU President Jim Clements four of his football players – seniors Chris Neild, the nose tackle; linebacker J. T. Thomas, wide receiver Jock Sanders and Reed Williams, the middle linebacker who is a West Virginia native and is now awaiting the NFL draft to see if his name is called.
It was a moving experience, an education for some college students that they’ll never get in a classroom.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” said Neild, a giant of man who pushes 300 pounds but who felt so insignificant at the moment. “To stand there and see those families, to see little kids shedding tears. It was just something I’ve never felt before.”
It was something no one should ever have to feel, yet it happens far too often.
“I look at things different now,” Neild admitted. “They know that what they do is dangerous, but any day something can happen. You take for granted the good things in your life. Being there really showed something to me, showed me how this state can come together at a moment when it has to come together.”
The service in Charleston was warm, emotional and necessary.
But it isn’t going to fill the void in Zach Harrah’s life on his 7th birthday.
To send Zach Harrah a birthday card, mail it to him at 705 C&O Dam Road, Daniels, WV, 25832.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.