Witness at Hawks Nest

Watch a four-minute film based on the book

1930: The Great Depression. Twenty-five cent an hour jobs attract thousands of men to West Virginia, two-thirds of them black, to drill Union Carbide’s Hawks Nest hydroelectric tunnel through near-solid rock. Within months, men fall ill and die of a mysterious illness—tunnelitis, company doctors call it. Lacking respiratory protection, at least 800 and possibly over 1,500 workers die of acute silicosis in America’s deadliest industrial disaster. Orville Orr, a company-paid deputy sheriff, secures the first autopsy of a tunnel worker and builds evidence of the company’s responsibility for the deaths. Armen, the mixed-race daughter of a tunnel worker and union organizer who dies of silicosis, joins him. They fall in love, and Orville risks his life to expose the truth about the tunnel workers’ deaths.

What People Are Saying

“Dwight Harshbarger captures the destruction, during the digging of Hawks Nest tunnel, of well over 700 lives workers who fell victim to undiagnosed silicosis and the cover-up of the tragedy by Union Carbide. I wish all West Virginia citizens would read this important book.”

—Joseph Wyatt

Professor of Psychology, Marshall University

“In the plain-spoken language of the people he writes about, Dwight Harshbarger has written a compelling tale of disaster and injustice. Harshbarger’s respect for history and for the common man shines through in Witness at Hawks Nest. What the book reveals is shocking and deeply relevant to our discussion of America’s future in the twenty-first century.”

—David Huddle

author of Paper Boy, Only the Little Bone and Glory River

Witness at Hawks Nest is a welcome addition to literature about the horrific incident. Harshbarger gives faces and voices to the victims the men who dug the Hawks Nest tunnel and fell victim to one of the worst industrial disasters in the nation, and the families who loved them.”

—Denise Giardina

author of Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth