Ashton Marra Published

UBB Sister: 'I Want to Remember My Brother, Not Just the Coal Miner'


On April 5, 2010, Howard “Boone” Payne went to work at the Upper Big Branch mine just as he had for years. He and 28 other men made their way miles underground to the mine’s long wall operation, spent hours mining coal, and prepared to wrap up their day when the unthinkable happened- an explosion that took all of their lives.

Six years later, Boone’s sisters Shirley Whitt and Sherry Keeney Depoy say there is still a void left in their family that cannot be filled. 

“The last time we talked he was talking about he was going to retire in two years,” Whitt said of her brother who was 53 at the time. “He said if I don’t get out of there, they’re going to kill me, and to this day it haunts me.”

The conversation came just weeks before the mine explosion that killed 29 mine near Montcoal, W.Va. Upper Big Branch was the worst mine disaster in the nation in 30 years. 

The explosion sparked a federal investigation that, in December, culminated in a guilty verdict for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship– the company that oversaw Upper Big Branch at the time of the explosion.

Blankenship was found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, a misdemeanor that carries an up to one year prison term and a maximum fine of $250,000.

Federal prosecutors told the jury a story of a micromanager who promoted a corporate environment of ignoring safety laws, leading to the disaster. Blankenship’s attorney’s pointed to a safety program on the books at Massey as proof he was concerned with safety. 

Whitt says she witnessed conversations between Boone and their father, a former coal miner himself, describing the conditions underground. 

“He would have a cold and he would sound so horrible and would say, when you wade in water up to your neck in that mines and you wear those clothes, that’s just a part of the job,” she said.

Whitt and her sister will attend a Tuesday morning memorial to commemorate the disaster that took their brother and 29 other men. 

Depoy described Boone as a hardworker who loved life, loved basketball, and was always just a phone call away. That’s how Whitt says she wants to remember him.

“I want to go over [to the memorial],” she said, “and just remember Boone as my brother and not just the coal miner.”