What Happened to Weirton? Part 2: He Could See Everything Folding
One person’s story can change your outlook on an entire town. Unfortunately, their story can leave you with more questions than answers.
By 2018, around 10,000 people had already left Weirton in search of a better life. I wanted to find someone who had stayed in the area and could tell me about their experience with the mill’s downfall. This led me to a story written in 2006 by an Associated Press reporter, Vicki Smith.
She wrote about Weirton’s decline through the lens of the tragic death of a Weirton Steel employee. His name was Larry Tice, and his surviving wife, Mary, lives in New Cumberland, West Virginia, about six miles north of Weirton. I figured if there was anyone who could summarize the pain felt in the region it was Mary, so I took a drive up Route 2 to visit her.
Mary described her home as a red brick cottage with a green mailbox, and when I pulled into the driveway of a house that fit the description, she was waiting for me at the door.
She showed me in, and I was blanketed with the smell of candles: peppermint, apple, cinnamon, one burning in every room. Amish furniture she and Larry bought over the years filled her kitchen. A giant Hoosier cabinet made of solid oak with a 48-inch pull-out table, a spice cabinet, and the table where we eventually sat were all handmade to their specifications. Mary said her furniture collection grew after she told Larry her jewelry trove was full enough.
“It was funny because he used to buy me jewelry, and then I was like, don't buy me jewelry anymore, buy me furniture,” she said.
Mary was happy to tell me more about her and Larry’s love. They met when she was only 12 years old. She was at a friend’s house getting ready for a church cantata, and Larry happened to be there with his buddy, who knew her friend’s father. When Mary came down the stairs dressed in a lavender gown, she remembered how Larry was standing in the room below.
“When I started to walk by, he says, ‘what's your name?’ And I told him, ‘my name's Mary Hall,’ (Hall was my maiden name). And I said, ‘Why do you want to know my name?’ And he says, ‘well, I'm Larry Tice.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And he says, ‘Remember my name.’ I said, ‘Why should I remember your name?’ He says, ‘I'll be the person who marries you someday.’ And he did, six years later.”
They married in 1980, a year after she graduated from high school. Larry had been working at Weirton Steel since 1973, and soon enough, they bought a house together.
Mary worked several clerical jobs in the healthcare industry, even though she didn’t have to. Larry’s income at the mill was enough, but they liked to treat each other, and Mary’s second income helped. She showed me some of the things he had gifted her. Hundreds of Cherished Teddies, horses, angel figurines, a kabuki doll, a music box. Her curio cabinet was filled with trinkets and gifts from Larry. But there was something else Mary wanted to show me, something even more special.
We walked into her bedroom and she pulled out what seemed to be simple blue Post-It Note from her jewelry box. It turned out to be so much more than that.
In 2004, Mary's mother passed away. Knowing she would be hurting during Christmas time, Larry gifted her a pair of golden hoop earrings as a final gift from her mother. Even though he wasn’t a great writer, he included a note, which she read aloud to me:
“The last gift. A mother's love for her daughter lasted a lifetime. It shines like a brilliant diamond in sunlight," she read. "Bright, shiny like her smile, smiling face full of love and pride because her baby is … now full grown woman now, herself full of love. Love to pass on now … circle was complete love given forever ... like this gift."
"And it's in my jewelry box, I have kept it in my jewelry box since then,” she said to me in a moment so precious that I was taken aback by her openness to share.
What Happened to Weirton - A Five Part Series
For a while, Mary and Larry were able to live out their American dream. They owned a house, had a steady income and enjoyed life together.
“So it just was, was the two of us, you know, just work hard and you know, plan for retirement … which never came,” she said as she started to explain how their modest life together would eventually be cut short.
Heart of the Mill Personified
Larry walked straight out of high school into the heart of the mill, the Basic Oxygen Plant. It was a scary looking building; at twenty stories high, the 250,000-square-foot structure seemed to take up most of downtown Weirton, like an idling beast.
“As a kid, you know, everybody used to say, ‘you know … that place is evil.’ You know, because it was the devil's house, because of the molten steel on the bottom that you could see when you go by with the ingots and that and then the horns at the top,” she said.
Larry was a crew chief in that molten hell, known more often as ‘the pit'. Needle-like lances would drop down into furnaces full of scrap metal and molten iron and shoot out oxygen at 1600 miles per hour. This would heat the metals up to 3000 degrees, smelting them into 300 tons of steel in 25 minutes.
The job wasn’t for the faint of heart, and Larry had not only himself to worry about, but his crew as well. Mary told me that when Larry was training new workers, he emphasized the undivided attention needed for the job. Otherwise, you could pay the ultimate price.
“He says, ‘if I tell you to move, don't say huh, because you'll be burnt alive,’” she said.
And sometimes, people did pay the ultimate price. A total of 120 men died while working at Weirton Steel. The dangers made it all the more important for the steel workers to have a deep trust in one another.
“They were all very close knit and each, you know, each crew, they knew how to depend on each other," Mary explained. "They knew what each one was capable of doing and doing for them, for each of them. And that solidified a bond that I can't even imagine."
“They would give their lives for each other. And I mean, Larry even said that, he says, ‘if it comes down to me or one of my buddies ... it's me,'" she added.
Larry worked in this flaming kingdom for 30 years, his whole life’s dedication spent refining a dangerous but rewarding craft. Yet, these years of devotion in the pit would make it all the harder for Larry when Weirton Steel finally went under.
The Change and the Worry
Along with several other steel mills in the early 2000’s, Weirton Steel filed for bankruptcy on May 19, 2003, after reporting around $700 million in losses over the previous five years. The mill was bought and sold a few times, ultimately ending with its new name and ownership: ArcelorMittal Weirton. All the while, the 3,000 workers who remained at this time were left to worry about their future.
Mary said it was a very tense time for everyone in Weirton.
“The change and just the worry, you know, am I going to go to work tomorrow and have a job?," she said. "Are they going to come in and say, ‘hey, we're going to take this off of you now.’ You know, no health care, you know, we're gonna take another 20 percent or we're going to do that. It was just, just the not knowing."
When Weirton Steel filed for bankruptcy, they handed over their pension fund to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or PBGC, a government agency that takes over benefit payments for businesses whose pension funds are floundering or at risk.
According to a 2003 PBGC press release, Weirton Steel Corporation’s Retirement Plan, which covered about 9,200 workers and retirees, only had $530 million in assets to cover almost $1.35 billion in benefit liabilities. Another press release stated that the PBGC estimated it would be responsible for about $697 million of those benefit liabilities, with a risk of incurring an additional loss of as much as $147 million for shutdown benefits.
The PBGC executive director at the time, Steve Kandarian, was quoted saying that, "I regret that the PBGC has been forced to take this course of action ... because Weirton Steel did not set aside enough money to pay for the pension promises made to its employees, some participants will not get all the benefits they earned." That is exactly what happened to Larry and his fellow steel workers. Mary explained how Larry’s pension was nearly cut in half.
“Per his calculations, he probably would have gotten clear around $3,000 a month. By the time that PBGC got ahold of it, he would have gotten less than $1,600 a month before taxes,” she said.
The PBGC method includes considering how long an employee has worked and how old the worker is at the time of the pension takeover. For example, if a man is 45 years old, because he is relatively young, he may see his “owed” pension reduced by a large magnitude, and on the other side of the equation, a man who is 65 might not see such a large reduction due to his age.
The PBGC figures that a person like Larry, who was 48 at the time, could still continue working and build up a new pension under ArcelorMittal or another company. What it doesn’t take into account, though, is the social and economic anxiety surrounding these situations.
It was a blow that was hard for Larry to handle.
“He could see everything folding I think. And you know, cause that's what he kept saying. He says, you know, he says, ‘I've worked so hard for so long, gave this place my blood, sweat and tears. And then somebody's just sitting behind a desk says, nope, we're going to take half of it,'" Mary recalled.
She said the decision seemed impersonal.
“It was like, how, how did we let this happen? How did other individuals have that many people's lives in their hands and just say, ‘We don't care,'" she said.
Weirton Steel also cut healthcare benefits and life insurance for all of its retirees. Larry contemplated taking a buyout, but wasn’t sure what he would do after that. It would be hard to find a job that offered as much as the mill did, Mary explained.
“I think that was part of Larry's desperation too, it's like, what am I going to do? I have done nothing. I went straight from high school into this. What do I have to fall back on? What can I do if I take the buyout?" she said.
After declining the buyout and being laid off for several months, Larry returned to work in January of 2006. By then, the BOP had ceased operations as the new owners started downsizing the mill into a tin-finishing plant, eliminating all parts of the steelmaking process except for the last steps of production. Larry was able to retain his employment, but he would no longer face the heat he thrived in for so long. He was transferred to the tin mill department where he started learning how to operate a side trimmer, a computer-operated machine that cuts down steel coils to specific widths.
Rumor has it, though, Larry was being bullied by the men who were training him. He was slower to pick up the job than others, and he was completely out of his element. Plus, the workers who were training him were on their way out of the mill, as employees with more seniority filled their spaces. With only a short amount of time to learn his new job, Mary said Larry’s anxiety spiked as he attempted to pick up a new skill set.
“I'm like, ‘two weeks, nobody's going to learn a new job in two weeks," she recalled saying to him. "And he says, ‘well, if I don't learn the job, … they're going to move on to somebody else.’”
I Was A Lot Stronger Than He Ever Thought I Was
Mary had already noticed changes in Larry by Christmas of 2005, and things were about to unravel even further. He was becoming more quiet, more closed off. When he was on a long weekend and supposed to return to the tin mill on a Thursday, Mary pushed him to see a doctor.
He followed her orders, and even though he didn’t know what the doctor had prescribed him, Mary said the medicine was on the table when she got home from work Tuesday evening. He was supposed to start taking it the following morning with breakfast.
That night, as they were watching TV, Larry randomly mentioned he wanted to get rid of some of his guns. Mary said ‘OK, do whatever you want. They’re your guns.’
The next morning, Larry got up before her and had breakfast and tea ready. She asked him what he planned to do that day. He said he wanted to get his guns cleaned and cataloged and then decide what he wanted to keep and what he would sell. As she prepared to step out the door, Larry called her over from the corner of the kitchen.
“He was backed up against the microwave and he says, ‘come here,'" Mary recalled. "And he opened the robe up and just give me a big bear hug. And he says, ‘I love you … see you later.’ And I said, ‘okay … well, I'll call you later this morning … find out what you want to do later.’”
Around 10:30 in the morning, Mary got a strange feeling and felt the need to call Larry. When Larry answered the phone, something was off about his voice.
“I said, ‘what's going on?’ And he says, ‘I'm so stupid, I'm so dumb.’ I'm thinking, okay. He broke a dish, he stepped on the dog — something goofy. And, and I said, ‘Okay, what did you do?’ And he says, ‘Oh, I'll show you ... when you get home.’ And I said, ‘tell me, I'm going to worry all day.’ ‘No, I'll just show you when you're getting home.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And I hung the phone up.”
Moments later, Mary had a piercing pain in her chest that hurt so bad she thought was having a heart attack. She told a friend at work to call 911, but suddenly the pain subsided. Larry was the only thing on her mind.
“I picked the phone back up and tried to call and there was no answer. And now I kept calling and calling and I thought, ‘something's wrong,’” she recalled.
She raced home to find her front door unlocked and her two dogs waiting inside the entrance. As she moved through the house, she called out to him, but received no answer. Finally, she made her way into their den, where Larry kept his gun cabinet. There, she found Larry laying face up, his guns strewn about.
“I said, ‘are you sleeping?’ And the dogs followed me into the room because I never put them back outside," she said. "And when I walked in, I looked down and his eyes were open and he was gone and I could tell from his face."
Larry had shot himself in the heart.
His medicine was still sitting on the table. He hadn’t taken one dose yet.
“I didn’t remember any of this for three and a half years,” she said, her voice becoming fainter.
“The two dogs that knew what happened in that house are gone," she added. "I wish they could have talked back then. So I mean, you know, between God and those two dogs and my husband, nobody knows what's happened.”
Mary said Larry was the type to shelter her.
"Didn't want me to worry, didn't want me to worry," she said. "But I was a lot stronger than he ever thought I was.”
Mary said there weren’t any mental health programs for mill workers at the time. Only after the fact did people pay more attention.
I thanked Mary for living through the pain once more to tell me Larry’s story. When she originally talked to Vicki Smith for the Associated Press article, she was apprehensive. But, she figured if she told Larry’s story, she might be able to help someone going through a similar situation. And, it turns out, she did.
“I found out later that there was a gentleman who was contemplating suicide and ... was at home alone and went to pick up the paper to read before he did. Had the gun on his lap and read the article that Vicki had wrote and said, ‘I couldn't leave my family like this. Not in the pain that that woman went through,’ and he called for help and got help," Mary said.
Mary was right. Larry’s story does resonate with others. When you take someone’s identity away from them, built up through years of labor and commitment, it’s hard to say how they’ll react. Some recover. Some don’t. So it makes you wonder, just like Mary did: how did we let this happen? It was the same thing I was thinking as I watched the BOP falling. All things come to an end, of course. But some end much better than others. In the next episode, we’ll explore how Weirton got to this point.
Music featured in this episode:
"White" by Kevin MacLeod
"Bittersweet" by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
"Melancholy Aftersounds" by Kai Engel