By Sydney Leibfritz
The Student Union Theater overfilled with nearly 400 community members, University students, faculty, and staff as they watched the second screening of Mine 21.
The documentary, which premiered at Monteagle Elementary School on October 24 with 200 people in attendance, emerged after University student and Grundy County native Kelsey Arbuckle (C’19) began to dig into her family’s history. When she learned her grandfather had been killed in a mine explosion in 1981 along with 13 other men, she uncovered an interesting family history that had been hidden for years.
The mine explosion that claimed the lives of the 13 men led to strains within Grundy and Marion counties where most of the victims lived. Neighbors blamed one another’s families for the explosion, and tension rose as blame shifted around.
In the documentary, Arbuckle’s grandmother Barbara Myers reflects in her interview, “13 people in a small community… [the explosion] affected everybody. Not only was [Charlie Myers] killed, but 13 other men, who had kids and grandkids. I want to make sure their dads and grandfathers are remembered as the hardworking men that they were.”
The majority of the film focuses on the explosion itself and Myers’s decision to sue the federal government to prevent the tragedy from repeating in other communities. The film includes CNN news coverage of her testimony before Congress, which included Senator Ted Kennedy.
With the help of Dr. Chris McDonough, fellow Grundy native Alexa Fults (C’21), and director Stephen Garrett (C’01), Arbuckle set out to bring attention to this landmark event for her community. Though she noted it was difficult at first to encourage people to tell their stories, she has found the experience to be rewarding and successful in bringing everyone closer together.
Fults remembers being shocked at how rapidly word of the documentary has spread. She stated, “The project we’ve done together is something that’s really impacted this community, and it is this community’s story. It’s not necessarily the University’s story or you know one narrative. It’s everyone’s story. We really wanted to show you all this first and as soon as we can so we can get your input on how we can possibly extend the story or do more with it. We wanted to open up the conversation that hasn’t really been shared or talked about so everyone can come together over this.”
With the mass attendance at screenings so far, the team seems to have been successful in bringing attention back to a history that’s being forgotten. J.T. Shadrick, who is also interviewed in the documentary and was a lead rescuer after the explosion, explained, “The mine was closed for a month and has since been reclaimed. If you went to visit the spot where it was today, you’d never know there was ever a coal mine there.”
In revisiting this painful part of Grundy history, the documentary has reopened many painful memories within those affected personally and indirectly. As the credits rolled and a tribute song to the miners played, a large portion of the audience held back or wiped away tears. Others praised the team’s work with shouts and whistles. Many prefaced questions to McDonough, Arbuckle, and Fults by simply saying, “Thank you for bringing attention to this.”
Many university students gained a new perspective on their university’s environment as well. Miranda Townsend (C’19) admitted, “I knew coal mining was a big industry around here, but I had no idea about the explosion or any of this. It’s so important that these stories be told, because we tend to not think about these types of things in our little bubble. A lot of kids our age don’t know about coal mining, so this needs to be expanded more, if they can get the time and money to make that happen.”
Even after the audience departed, the conversation continued as many people expressed their interest in more screenings, including potentially at a film festival. Facebook comments rolled in from those in attendance and those who couldn’t make it, expressing their own stories of how the tragedy impacted them.
One commenter, Nathan Brown, thanked Arbuckle and Fults in a sentimental post detailing how the film “brought a lot of memories flooding back” and allowed him to reunite with “old coal miner friends [he] hadn’t seen in thirty years.”
Stacy Shrum commented on the same post, “I remember where I was that day. I was in first grade and… one of my classmates’ dad lost his life that day. I remember her mom coming to pick her up from school. I didn’t know exactly why her mom was crying, but we were eventually told what happened. I still see her every once in a while and that’s the first memory that comes to mind.”
When asked what lies ahead for the project, Arbuckle responded, “I hope we can get more people to tell their story. I love my family, but I’d love to hear more from others who were also impacted, though it’s hard to put a number on how many more stories need to be shared.”
At just under 15 minutes, the documentary presents the story of Mine No. 21 but invites its audience to continue the dialogue surrounding it. As decisions have not yet been released on how this will be expanded in length or in more screenings, McDonough recommends visiting their website (www.mine21.com) for future updates on the project.