Every once in a while we come across a story that stands out from the pack, a narrative that eloquently encapsulates a place we have never been.
Associated Press writer Vicki Smith’s piece on the turn of events that led a West Virginia steelworker to take his life is one such story.
In it, Smith gives us the sad tale of Larry Tice — a veteran steelworker from Weirton, West Virginia — couched within a brief economic history of his town’s decline and fall.
The story begins with Tice’s wife, Mary, rushing home along Weirton’s dilapidated Main Street following a worrisome phone call in which Larry had mumbled, “I screwed up.”
“At the edge of town, the old mill rose around her, a vast and vacant complex of corrugated steel, once mint-green but now faded and streaked with rust. Behind crumbling concrete walls and broken barbed wire, its parking lots were empty, its smokestacks cold. Moss clung to the sagging remains of an acres-long rooftop, knee-high weeds sprouting from the gutters,” writes Smith, an AP correspondent based in Morgantown, West Virginia. “Mary didn’t notice any of it. Weirton, once dubbed ‘the beast of the East’ for its world-class steelmaking, had been dying for a long time.”
From there the story moves seamlessly back in time to Mary and Larry’s Weirton childhood — better days when “National Steel Corp. supported 13,000 families, nearly everyone in a town of about 25,000,” and a job at the mill “was a birthright.”
Larry’s father and uncles and cousins worked at the mill, so he signed up after his high school graduation in 1973, making his living “at the heart of the mill, where glowing molten steel drifted overhead in 340-ton ladles, then roared out of 3 1/2-inch holes” — “like the heart of a volcano, smotheringly hot and ready to erupt.”
While “Many men couldn’t take it,” Larry thrived. “He jotted notes in a logbook he carried every day,” Smith explains, “and quickly became a crew chief to six men”:
They wore their scars with pride, shiny pink proof of their labor. And Larry had plenty. Hundreds of times after they married, Mary sat at a table with boiled rags and tweezers, peeling off dead skin, bandaging the burns.
She never heard him complain.
The mill sold every pound of steel it made.
But then, as “consumer tastes began to shift, and aluminum and plastic packaging began to replace steel,” Weirton’s inexorable decline commenced, marked by the first two rounds of layoffs.
Workers fought back, taking pay cuts and buying the company themselves in 1984, renaming it the Weirton Steel Corp. “For a while, things went well. But even more countries began exporting steel — Brazil, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, China,” Smith writes. “As Weirton’s profits shrank, the workers began to give up ownership, selling stock twice in the first decade. The mill lost $75 million in 1991, and as jobs vanished, Main Street lost tenants.”
In the late 1990s the decline accelerated, and by 2003 Weirton, like many American steel companies before it, was bankrupt. It eventually ended up in the hands of the world’s largest steel company, Mittal, which closed down Weirton’s blast furnace. As Larry struggled with his new job in the tin mill, worry and “Fear began to consume him,” followed by his suicide on February 8, 2006.
It is a gripping narrative that stands up with few quotations, simply a good tale, well-told — the kind of creatively imagined piece that, if emulated, would make business sections more readable. Even reporters who cover the most esoteric financial news could do worse than to remember that “journalism” is, after all, just another word for “storytelling.”
“Mary still doesn’t know how Larry ‘screwed up,’” Smith writes. “He left no note” — only a broken widow.
And as for Weirton, its “sidewalks are empty now,” its skies “clear.”
“Where once trucks rumbled, there is silence. Fewer than 1,200 workers remain at the mill,” Smith notes. “Hope that Weirton will recapture its former glory has died, and hope that it can hang on much longer is not far behind.”