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Former Coal Miner Jack Horne Dies From Advanced Black Lung Disease

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're going to take the next few minutes to remember the life of Jack Horne. He died last week at the age of 66 from an illness killing thousands - black lung disease. Horne was a coal miner from Kimper, Ky., and he was part of an NPR-PBS "Frontline" series on black lung disease. The investigation found federal regulators knew the extent of the epidemic but failed to stop it. A producer on that investigation, NPR's Adelina Lancianese, has this remembrance.

ADELINA LANCIANESE, BYLINE: This is the voice of Jack Horne in a video from 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF HORNE AND JACK HORNE: (Singing) When my last line is written, someday when I've drawn my last breath...

LANCIANESE: He's singing an old bluegrass tune with his brother at New Beginnings Pulmonary Rehab in Northern Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF HORNE AND JACK HORNE: (Singing) Don't look on my cold form in pity. Don't think of me as one dead.

LANCIANESE: By the sound of it, you might not guess that Horne is fighting for every note, that black lung disease has irreversibly calcified his lungs, that he's wearing a nasal cannula for oxygen.

MARCY TATE: But he still found enough strength in his body and enough wind in his lungs to tell jokes and to share laughter and to share joy with his fellow coal miners.

LANCIANESE: That's Horne's pulmonary therapist Marcy Tate.

TATE: To be struggling yourself but still finding the time and the strength and the effort it takes to help someone else to lighten their load - that was Jack Horne, my friend.

LANCIANESE: Horne had been undergoing treatment at New Beginnings four days a week to manage his symptoms. That's because advanced black lung is incurable. When we talked to Horne in 2018, he described the pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRONTLINE")

JACK HORNE: The only thing I could liken it to is like if somebody ever holds you underwater till you thought you were going to drown. And when you come up, you're gasping for air. And that's what it's like, you know, when you have a lung attack.

LANCIANESE: Horne's father was also a coal miner, and he, too, was diagnosed with black lung. In fact, that's what brought Jack Horne into the coal mines in the first place. His father became too weak to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRONTLINE")

HORNE: When they pulled him out of the mines, I was in school. And I quit school and went to work because, you know, they wouldn't pay him any benefits.

LANCIANESE: Despite seeing his dad suffering, Horne worked 21 years underground. It paid well. He often picked up 16-hour shifts so he could afford a house for his family and put his two kids through school. And then Horne himself was diagnosed in the early 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRONTLINE")

HORNE: I got put in the hospital. I thought I was having a heart attack. My left arm would go numb. They told me - they said, you got a hole in your lung.

LANCIANESE: He was told he would never mine coal again. For the rest of his life, Horne subsisted mostly on federal black lung benefits - which were $1,300 a month - and Social Security. Like most of the sick and dying coal miners we interviewed, Horne didn't regret his choices but had advice for others.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRONTLINE")

HORNE: It was a rough life. You know, I'm thankful for it that I had it to - that I could feed my family. But if I could say anything to young people, get your education and do something else. If the accidents don't get you in there, the black lung will after that.

LANCIANESE: Black lung took Jack Horne's life last Friday, June 19. More than 70,000 other coal miners have suffered the same fate.

Adelina Lancianese, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF HORNE AND JACK HORNE: (Singing) And after all is said and done, know that my last earnest prayer is that my loved ones be ready someday to meet me there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Amen.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLPOOL SONG, "IDEAL WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.