BLUEFIELD, Va. — Retired coal miners gathered at a local restaurant and shared their thoughts about a missing co-worker they admired and respected, and how they cannot believe he would simply walk away from his life.
Almost a year ago, 41-year-old Eric Smith of Cedar Bluff, Va. went missing on his land after he set off to go hunting the morning of Nov. 8, 2013. Law enforcement agencies, family and friends conducted an extensive search, but no clue about his whereabouts has been found. Investigators have told the family that sometimes missing people simply leave, but the family has not accepted this theory, and neither have his coworkers.
The retired coal miners who gathered at Ryan’s in Bluefield, Va. were unanimous in their opinion: The Eric Smith they knew would never abandon his family and career.
Smith was general mine foreman of Buchanan No. 1 for Consol Energy when he disappeared. He was often the first person to arrive in the morning and the last one to leave, Reggie Lambright, 60, of Tazewell, Va. recalled.
“We worked together for years,” Don Hylton, 55, of Bluefield, Va. said. “As a matter of fact, I remember when he was hourly – and then he ended up being my boss.”
Another former coworker, Tim Lowe, 64, of Tazewell, Va. said he knew Smith for approximately 14 years, and the others agreed that they had known him for about the same length of time. He was like a member of their family.
Bob Brewster, 63, of Tazewell, Va. worked with Smith at smaller coal operations as well as for Consol. During those years, he learned that Smith was a conscientious miner who cared about his workers and doing everything correctly.
“I thought he was real safety conscious, and he always had a good attitude,” Brewster said.
Smith was blinded in one eye after an accident with a bit machine, Rick Steele, 55, of Cedar Bluff, Va. remembered. Many of his coworkers were unaware of this until the need to always wear safety glasses came up. He was walking past the machine, about 20 feet way, when the accident occurred and a fragment hit his eye, they said.
“You couldn’t tell just by looking at him,” Hylton said.
“I know I worked in the safety department,” Lambright stated. “We would have safety meetings. He would talk about how he lost his eye and how important it was for the guys to wear glasses.”
Brewster remembered one operation he worked at with Smith. It earned a commendation after going a full year without an accident.
Smith worked to make the mines he was responsible for safe by having a through knowledge of mining laws and regulations, Hylton said. And Smith knew how to apply them.
“A lot of times I would come in at the end of a shift or early in the morning – some of you guys might have seen this– and he would have the mining laws out and he would be studying sections of the law and how it applied to what he would be doing that day or with something that was coming up,” Hylton stated. “That’s probably what made him succeed as well as he did. He stayed on top of current laws, policies and everything; and he applied them to whatever he was doing.”
“He wanted to carry out his daily duties. He treated everyone equally, too,” said Emmett Casey Jr., 59, of Bluefield.
“I unloaded on him plenty of times, but he handled it well,” Steele said with a laugh.
“If you had legitimate problems and you wanted to talk to him about it, he didn’t hold it against you,” Casey said. “He was firm.”
Besides being fair with his coworkers, Smith was also competitive, and liked to show off cell phone pictures of the turkey and other game he tracked down. Smith was also a devoted family man. When his son-in-law came to work at the Buchanan mine, Smith took time to mentor him, his friends said.
Smith’s position, which included working with more than 500 people, was a great responsibility. He could get phone calls from his superiors at midnight or calls from people working under him. It was “a 24/7 job,” Lambright said.
“It was worse than being a doctor,” Hylton added.
Despite these pressures, Smith had a reputation among the miners for his fairness and good temper. Hylton said when investigators asked him if he could think of anybody who might have had a vendetta against Smith, he didn’t know of any person who wanted to harm him.
“He was so fair with everybody,” Hylton said.
“He was always good to me,” Lowe added. “You could talk to him about this and that. He was an outstanding person.”
Smith’s friends described a man who had worked hard and put himself in the forefront of a demanding profession. He was never a person who simply held back and became just another member of the crowd.
This description is not one of a man who would just walk away from his family and career, they unanimously agreed, adding that not knowing what happened to him is a difficult thing for his family and friends to endure. Everyone who knows Smith continues to wonder what happened to him, and pray for a good outcome.
Eric Smith’s family and friends have offered a $20,000 reward for any tip that leads to his return.