Editor's note: Kings Dominion closed for the season on Oct. 27.
"ALONE in the darkness . . . the only sound is the pulsing of your heart as the searing heat slowly boils you alive . . . It was reported to be the worst coal mine accident in history. The families of missing miners begged for help but it was decided that a rescue was too dangerous. The miners were left entombed deep underground."
So begins the Web pitch for the new "Miner's Revenge" maze, one of 10 haunted attractions meant to tantalize and terrorize visitors during "Halloween Haunt" at Kings Dominion amusement park in the rolling Virginia countryside about 70 miles south of Washington, D.C.
The advertisement continues: "Lamps at their sides and pick-axes in their hands they are searching for the men who left them to die . . . waiting to exact their revenge."
I haven't gone through the maze, and I don't intend to, although Kings Dominion spokesman Gene Petriello offered me a free pass. That's because Miner's Revenge hits a little too close to home for me.
From 2010 to 2012, I spent a good bit of time researching a real coal-mine disaster for a book published last year: the massive April 5, 2010, underground blast at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal in southern West Virginia.
Twenty-nine miners died in what was the worst U.S. coal-mine disaster in 40 years. Three investigations have found that the incident was the result of Massey's atrocious safety policies.
To promote the maze, Kings Dominion's website features a garish picture of a badly mutilated half-skeleton.
That depiction, unfortunately, is true to reality. At Upper Big Branch, 10 of the 29 dead were blown apart by the explosion. The rest died of carbon monoxide intoxication.
So powerful was the blast that the remains of one miner were not found for days. He had been blown into the ceiling, and rescuers tended to look down.
So extensive was the physical trauma to five miners that pathologists couldn't find enough lung tissue to probe for pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, in their remains.
Tommy Davis, a member of an extended family of miners, was near the mine entrance when the blast occurred. "I felt this wind and all this [expletive] coming out – rocks and wood. I made it outside and was trying to get my bearings. I thought it was a major rock fall, but I remember them all back there: my son, my brother, my nephew and the others."
Davis' son, Cory, his brother, Timmy, and his nephew, Josh Napper, were killed.
The idea of abandonment is a difficult topic for miners. At Kings Dominion, the suggestion of living miners left to die is meant to inject some enjoyable dramatic tension.
At Upper Big Branch, we have the real-life story of Timothy Blake. He told investigators that he was leaving his shift with eight others on a "mantrip," or small rail car, when the explosion occurred, soon followed by deadly carbon monoxide gas.