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A year in review

After yet another eventful year for local news, 2019 is officially in the books – or the newspaper would probably be more suiting to say. From reporting on a heartbreaking fire where community members banded together to lift up one of their own to facing one of the biggest coal industry giants in the eastern United States, 2019 has certainly had its ups and downs, yet we each came out a little stronger with the start of 2020.

Below are the top five local news stories of the year:

No. 5: Mother, two children die in devastating Totz fire

An explosive house fire on April 22 in Totz led to the death of 3-year-old twins and severe injuries to their parents. The mother died just days later from her injuries.

On April 22 at 11:18 a.m., the Kentucky State Police received a call about a fire in Totz. KSP later reported Dennis Chad Howard, 39, and wife, Allyson Howard, 42, were severely injured and were transported to Holston Valley Medical Center in Tennessee and then to Augusta, Ga. for treatment of life-threatening injuries.

At approximately 6:30 p.m., KSP said the toddlers missing during the fire were found and pronounced dead inside the home by the Harlan County coroner.

Two days later, Allyson died after battling injuries suffered in the fire, leaving behind her husband and 16-year-old son, Ozzy Howard.

Allyson Howard’s mother, Vicki Blakley, said Allyson was a stay-at-home mom and homemaker, and Chad worked as a part-time postal clerk in Benham.

“The days ahead are going to be a lot harder,” Blakley said. “We just need a lot of prayer, and I believe in prayer in numbers.”

Blakley expressed how pleased she was with the number of first responders and neighbors who came to help.

“We’d like to thank the fire departments, police and ambulance services that worked so hard and did a fantastic job with them. They went above and beyond for them and we’re humbled by everything they’ve done,” Blakley said. “You would’ve thought the White House was on fire with how many people came to help.

“Harlan’s the greatest place I could live in in a time of need like this. The support of the community is comforting.”

As a result of the tragedy, various organizations and businesses in Harlan County made efforts to help the family, including taking donations to offset funeral expenses.

No. 4: Wet vote presents ‘opportunity,’ says Harlan mayor

The city of Harlan’s wet-dry vote came to a close not long after polls closed Nov. 5, with 364 (66.5 percent) voting “wet” and 183 (33.5 percent) voting “dry.” After tallying the results, Harlan residents prepare for the long-time “moist” community to go wet by 181 votes, giving stores within Harlan city limits a chance to sell packaged alcoholic beverages in their stores.

Harlan Mayor Joseph Meadors commented after the four precincts entered their votes, saying the “people have spoken.”

“As a city government, we were prepared to follow the will of the people regardless of how it turned out,” Meadors said. “I kind of view this as an opportunity for us to do some things we’ve not been able to do in the city – attract some new investments, some new people into our community, some new workers. I think that makes us all better and that makes us a more vibrant, local economy.”

Meadors said although the vote was passed making the city of Harlan wet, there are a number of things left to do before the city is officially able to hold that title — including placing a number of ordinances in place pertaining to the sale of alcoholic beverage.

No. 3: County declared a Second Amendment Sanctuary, first in KY

Harlan County Fiscal Court members, along with Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley, unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday to officially declare the county as a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

“This resolution is something that is passed in a lot of places throughout the country,” Mosley said as he referred to a map of the United States with the counties that have passed a similar resolution in green.

He added he does not know of another county in Kentucky that has been declared as a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

“I think everyone in this room are people that value our rights — particularly, our rights to bear arms.”

Although a resolution is a non-binding document and does not carry the weight of law, it is the county government’s belief the document can express the majority’s values in Harlan County. It also makes a statement to any opposing entity, whether it be state or federal, that the people would resist any entity’s attempt to infringe upon their rights, which in this case would be the rights of legal gun owners.

Mosley said he already believes Harlan County to be a Second Amendment Sanctuary before the passing of the resolution, mentioning the locals who have fought and died in war to protect this right.

“I believe, strongly, that there are more guns in Harlan County than there are people,” he said lightheartedly. “So, we want to pass this resolution because our country is in a pivotal time.”

No. 2: Harlan County celebrates 200th birthday

Citizens of Harlan County were welcomed to the Harlan County Bicentennial Proclamation reading and signing on March 29, marking the beginning of a year-long celebration of Harlan’s 200 years as a county.

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley opened the proclamation at 11 a.m. by welcoming attendees at the Harlan County Courthouse. Following prayer and the pledge, Mosley described what he sees as an important year for the county.

“Today is, of course, a monumental day as we kick off this year-long celebration,” Mosley said.

Mosley then introduced Harlan County Historical Network President Will Miller, who spoke briefly of the county’s people and culture before introducing Harlan historian Dr. James S. Greene III.

Mosley went on in his speech to ask the crowd what defines Harlan County for them.

“To me, over the past 200 years, this is what comes to mind,” Mosley began. “Think about the people that first came here more than 200 years ago, before the county was even incorporated… think about what it was like to even get here.”

“There weren’t even logging roads at that time. No roads, just trails, to get through these hills,” Mosley said.

Mosley added to think about how the people provided for themselves and took care of themselves from a health perspective. He went on to talk about the coal industry and how it provided a “melting pot” for the people who came to mine it. Mosley also mentioned the proud military heritage we have here.

“We have a proud and rich history here in Harlan County,” Mosley said. “I am Harlan County. You are Harlan County. And I am daggum proud of it.”

Mosley and Greene unveiled the Bicentennial logo. Mosley then read and signed the proclamation for Harlan County’s Bicentennial, reiterating this year as a time for celebration. A number of events later took place throughout the year as part of the bicentennial celebration.

No. 1: Blackjewel files Chapter 11 bankruptcy, miners stop train

Shortly after one of the largest coal producers in the nation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1, a lengthy and expensive scheduling of court hearings began taking place in a courtroom in Charleston, W. Va. Although many families have received replacement checks for wages lost as a result of the company’s irresponsibility, many are left scarred by the events which took place just six short months ago.

After two months of blocking the train tracks in Cumberland — preventing a load of coal mined from Cloverlick Mine No. 3 from leaving — Blackjewel miners impacted by the company’s bankruptcy filing on July 1 decided to end their peaceful protest though they remained unpaid at the time.

Miners first decided to take to the tracks during the afternoon hours of July 29 when word spread of coal being loaded for transport from a mine owned by Blackjewel. Since then, miners have been blocking the tracks at Sand Hill Bottom Road in order to keep the coal from leaving until they were paid.

Over the course of two months, the miners allowed a CSX train engine to pass without the coal they mined, continued to battle in bankruptcy court for wages taken from their accounts and rallied together in a time of need.

Through many efforts to claim paychecks rightfully owed to them, miners and their attorneys have been unsuccessful as bankruptcy hearings continued to be scheduled.

Although the miners have been ravaged by the bankruptcy financially and emotionally, many of them have enrolled in schools, found other jobs or moved to seek better opportunities for their families instead of waiting for a check that may never come.

Kopper Glo Mining was approved by the federal bankruptcy court as the winning bid for Black Mountain and Lone Mountain mining operations and their assets during a hearing on Aug. 6 in Charleston, W.Va. Previous Blackjewel miners attended court hearings on Sept. 23 when a decision had not yet been decided, but they later learned of the $450,000 pledged to them to cover back wages, whether they return to work or not.

The discussion of the bid went well into evening hours when a disagreement between Kopper Glo and Caterpillar erupted during the hearing. Kopper Glo’s bid was put at risk when the company would not agree to Caterpillar’s condition to carve out their equipment from the deal. After much debate, Kopper Glo’s bid was still successful in the end when Caterpiller withdrew its claim, according to court documents.

Kopper Glo has also pledged up to an additional $550,000 to go toward the same fund from anticipated future royalties. The combined monies represent nearly half of the losses Kentucky miners experienced as a results of “clawed-back” checks and Blackjewel’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The miners have a priority lien against the $6 million Kopper Glo will pay to the debtor at the time of closing; however, the miners’ attorney will have to compete against other lien holders for the miners’ share of the $6 million.

Blackjewel eventually agreed to pay $5.47 million in wages no paid between June 10 and July 1 to miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, giving miners a light at the end of their three-month journey in October. While some workers received their replacement checks and 401K, others are still waiting and fighting to be awarded their earnings.

Until the Blackjewel bankruptcy is finally laid to rest, the adversary class-action lawsuit filed against Jeff Hoops Sr., Jeff Hoops Jr. and Lexington Coal also remains on hold.