'Never be afraid to stand up': Miners who started protest reflect on Blackjewel saga

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BENHAM, Ky. (WYMT) - Since the beginning of the Blackjewel saga on July 1, we showed many stories highlighting the impact the bankruptcy had on miners and their families. But five miners may have had a large impact on Blackjewel itself.

Jeff Willig, Blake Watts, Chris Sexton, and Chris and Dalton Lewis started the protests in Harlan County by blocking a train hauling coal out of Cloverlick #3 Mine.

"It's something for our children to look up to, and to other miners families that can look up to and go 'hey when times are hard you have to unite, stick together, and really stand up for your rights,'" said Jeff Willig, a former Blackjewel miner.

Willig, Blake Watts, Chris Sexton, and Chris and Dalton Lewis are all former Blackjewel miners, they all had thousands disappear from their bank accounts, and they all have another thing in common: they all started the protests in Harlan County.

WYMT met with the five men in the basement of the Coal Mining Museum in Benham, the neighboring city of Cumberland.

A camp composed of mostly coal miners and their families off Sand Hill Bottom Road along US 119 in Cumberland has been up for more than two weeks.

It started because miners saw a train leaving with coal they worked for at the Cloverlick #3 Mine, work they had not been paid for.

"You're gonna sit here and still try and take from my family, and all these other guys families, secretly, like you were trying to get away with it," said Willig.

The coal still sits at the mine weeks later. The five who initially stepped on the tracks to block the train all worked in the mines for years.

"It's not an easy job, it's not something that a lot of people wanna do, it's every going challenge and basically you're digging your own grave," said Blake Watts.

Blake Watts was a former Blackjewel miner, who found a new mining job in Harlan County.

Also among the five who started the protest is a father-son duo.

"You know there's a lot of pride that comes with coal mining, and I'm proud of Dalton," said Chris Lewis.

"Honestly, don't be scared to stand up for what's right," said Dalton Lewis.

Chris and his son Dalton were both miners for Blackjewel. They are moving to Alabama for new mining jobs on Aug. 14.

The makeshift camp the miners are at received hundreds of donations and support across the political spectrum.

"Even though there are days, cause there are days, I guarantee that everyone right here sitting with me right now can say 'are we really gonna win?' You know that has probably crossed their minds, and you know we, we just continue to fight we haven't given up," added Willig.

The miners say the camp became more of a symbol. Its purpose is now much more than stopping a load of coal from leaving. It's about making sure all Blackjewel miners are paid.

"Always stand up for yourself, don't let anyone run over you," said Chris Sexton.

"And that's another thing, be unified when you stand for something, against something like this," Chris Lewis added.

"Never be afraid to stand up for something cause if you back down then what do you achieve," Watts chimed in.

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