The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

UBB victim’s fiancée, a fellow miner, reflects on explosion’s aftermath



Howard Daniel “Boone” Payne Jr. always called his fiancée Bobbie Pauley at 5:10 p.m., when he got the first cell phone signal in Marmet after leaving the Upper Big Branch Mine.

He always asked Pauley, a fellow miner and the only female at UBB, if she needed anything from the store. He would arrive home between 5:20 and 5:25 p.m.

On April 5, 2010, 5:10 p.m. passed — no call. By 5:20 p.m., Pauley still hadn’t heard anything.

“His dog [Trigger] knew his schedule,” Pauley said. “I was looking out the window — Trigger was walking back and forth across the fence line, looking for 'Daddy.'"

Pauley remembers trying to rationalize why Payne hadn’t called.

“I thought to myself, ‘They must’ve run a lot of coal today. He must’ve stayed over in Bolt.’”

The two had just shared a peaceful Easter Sunday together, and Payne had insisted that Pauley stay in bed on her day off as he left in the dark for work. He told her to stay home and relax.

Pauley was cooking dinner when the first phone call came — a friend.

“He said, ‘Have you heard anything?’ I said, ‘Heard what?’ He said, “Bobbie, something happened at the mine’ … He explained that there was no contact with the miners.”

As Pauley began to cry, Payne’s father called and told her that UBB had had an explosion. Pauley raced out the door.

“I flew. I remember a state trooper coming by … with his blue lights, and I came in and tucked in behind — and I looked down at one point and saw I’m going 93 [miles per hour].”

All the while, she calculated Payne’s schedule, knowing that he always got on the mantrip at 3 p.m. and usually made it outside the mine by 3:45 p.m.

Believing the explosion had happened later in the afternoon, she calmed herself slightly.

“I thought, ‘He’s probably helping. It’s probably busy and chaotic and it never occurred to him to call.’”

However, when she arrived at the disaster site, she was sent straight to the family members’ waiting area.

“I remember all I wanted to know was what time it happened because then I would know if he was OK.”

Then they told her the explosion time: 3:05 p.m. “I said, ‘Oh my God. He’s still on the seat on the mantrip.’”

With Payne’s father and sisters, Pauley waited through the night for news of the rescue efforts. When she finally returned to Payne’s house at 3:30 a.m. for a shower, she sat in Payne’s office chair and found a note he’d left her before he left for work April 5.

 “He wrote, ‘Bobbie, I love you, and I want you to know that you are my baby and that you are my rock. I love you so much and always will.’ And then he wrote, ‘Love, Boone,’ and he underlined, ‘Have a nice day.’”

“When I read it, I thought, ‘Is this all? Is this it? Because it just hit me that this is the last thing I’ll ever hear from you again.’ I sat in that chair and I sobbed and I sobbed and I sobbed.”

Outside, Payne’s Rotweiler, Trigger, was still waiting on his owner.

“He paced up and down the fence line, and he got out there where Boone parked his truck, and he just laid there. The next day he was laying out there again … and I went out there and tried to talk to him. I said, ‘How can you talk to a dog?’”

Trigger died soon after. “That dog grieved himself to death.”

Pauley returned to the waiting area at the mine where she got to know her former co-workers’ family members and find some comfort in the community’s support.

“I will say that the community was so good to us. There was food, constant food. Just the outpouring of care and giving — it was something I’ve never seen in my life.”

Then the blow came, when officials walked out to announce the results of the rescue mission.

“I’ll never forget when they came out. I thought, ‘I’ll know by the expression on their faces when they come out of the hallway.’” Yet Pauley couldn’t read their faces.

“There was nothing there. Here was no happy. It was a blank. We couldn’t tell, or maybe you could tell and you didn’t want to tell.”

Pauley remembers only four words of then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s announcement: “There were no survivors.”

“He dropped the microphone and I heard, ‘Boom … boom … boom …’ and I started screaming … I was screaming his name, screaming, ‘Please don’t take my baby’ I don’t know how long. I remember one of the coal miners saying, “Bobbie, you are a coal miner. You are tougher than this.’”

In the weeks and months that followed, Pauley said, she has had to push herself to be tough. In May 2010, she returned to work at UBB — though not underground.

“I’ve never been back underground since the explosion because I hear him [Payne] saying that you’ve got to leave [everything] outside, and I just can’t do that right now. At some point I think eventually I’ll go back … because I think he would if it had been me instead of him.”

At first, Pauley said, she found a strong source of healing in working with men who had known and loved Payne, too. They would tell her stories of jokes Payne had cracked, pranks he’d played, crazy things that would spill out of his notoriously loud mouth.

“They gave me a lot of comfort, just through them knowing him and understanding him and knowing what we meant to each other.”

When Performance Coal switched to her to a shift by herself, however, Pauley described how her mind began to wander dangerously.

“I would look out the window and see the flag [for the 29 miners] hanging across the portal, and I would stand and cry for hours.”

One night she even went outside and begged Payne to turn on his light and come out of the portal.

After taking a break in an attempt to soothe her nerves, Pauley changed to another mine altogether — the nearby Parker Peerless Mine.

Still, Payne’s absence weighs on Pauley during her commute to work, which she used to spend talking on the phone with Payne.

“He would talk me from the driveway to where I got the last [cell] signal. If it was snowing, he’d want me to call him when I got to the mine.” He would talk her all the way home, too. Now she rides with silence.

“You know, I miss the little things. Some that are so small, that can hurt so deeply.”

Through little things, Pauley also tends to his memory.

“I go to his grave all the time. I put flowers on the grave, and then change summer flowers to fall flowers.” For Christmas, Pauley created a replica of a tree that she had decorated for him once.

Every week she brings to his gravesite a romantic “mush” card — the kind she and Payne used to give each other.

Memories of Payne fill Pauley’s house: a vine tree with “Bobbie and Boone” on a sign across the top, a decoration of a miner’s boots and hat, a cross that she placed on his grave before the memorial, his cologne, and a chunk of coal from UBB. On Pauley’s bed sits the big, soft teddy bear she gave him for the last Valentine’s Day before the disaster.

“He said, ‘Bobbie, nobody’s ever done anything like that for me.’” Framed photos of Payne, or Payne and Pauley, line the walls and stand propped on coffee tables. However, one unframed photo, where Boone’s smile seems to leap out from the picture, sits beside the bed.

“I talk to him every night before I go to bed. I say my prayers and I talk to Boone and I usually cry myself to sleep. You just don’t get past it.”

Even her pot of morning coffee reminds Pauley how Payne liked it strong, and she liked it mild.

“We would call it Boone coffee and Bobbie coffee. When I make it too strong I’ll say, ‘Ooh, Boone coffee — I still made your coffee.’”

Pauley has closely followed the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigations of the explosion.

“Personally I don’t think they ever really will have all of the answers — I think that the closest we’ll get will be the report from MSHA.” She says she hopes anyone responsible for the explosion will meet justice.

“I want them to be held accountable. And from a family perspective, I think … a lot of the families have strong problems with [those who are] pleading the Fifth [Amendment]. We don’t understand how you can call Boone your friend and yet not want to help find out what happened to him … . That’s hurt a lot of families.”

Meanwhile, Pauley said, she continues with a slow healing process.

“I do not know how this happened to us. I believe he deserved better than to die this way and I don’t think that God did this. I don’t think that you can blame this on God, because the God I know is a merciful God.”

“God is helping me. He can heal your broken heart, but it takes time to heal.”

As Pauley’s doctor pointed out to her, Pauley is in the unusual position of mourning not only the man she loved, but also 28 other friends and co-workers. While the initial pain left her feeling too shaken to talk to the public, Pauley said, she has pushed herself to tell Payne’s story in honor of his life.

“I think from the onset of the tragedy, I was never strong enough — I wasn’t capable of speaking to the media.”

She spoke out about Payne because “for the people who knew Boone — and who didn’t know Boone — I want him to be remembered as a loving, kind, gentle person. He had his tough side and he had his soft side. But it’s OK to be both. I just want to honor him, because he deserved so much better than to die the way he did.”

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