WEIRTON, W.Va. –

Mary Tice drove along Main Street, barely seeing the worn storefronts, the seedy strip clubs, the flashy video poker bars promising better luck. Her mind was on Larry.

“I screwed up,” her husband had mumbled on the phone. She’d asked what he meant, but he wouldn’t say.

“I’ll tell you when you get home,” he promised.

She tried calling back, but Larry didn’t answer.

He’s busy, she tried to reassure herself. He was going to check the water heater at his mother’s place. But then she called a neighbor who said Larry’s pickup was in the driveway.

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 sprouted from the gutters.

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.

Clouds hung low and it was cold enough to snow as Mary turned up the leafless hillside, more gray than green, onto the winding road to her little white house.

Concern now swollen to fully formed fear, she pulled to a stop beside Larry’s truck.

The dogs were inside the house. She could hear them barking.

Jobs just waiting

They had both grown up here, children of a different time.

A time when furnaces and coke ovens spewed great clouds of gray smoke, flecked with graphite that glinted silver under the sun. A time when schools kept their windows closed so the children could breathe. A time when smog was synonymous with success.

National Steel Corp. supported 13,000 families, nearly everyone in a town of about 25,000. The mill was a birthright. Children were raised to believe if they worked hard enough, they would always have a job.

There was never a doubt where Larry would work. He’d grown up listening to Dad’s stories at the dinner table. George Earl Tice, an ex-Marine, had lost a finger and an eye to the job, but always, he went back. Uncles worked there. Cousins.

When Larry graduated from Oak Glen High School in 1973, it was either Vietnam or the mill. An uncle took him downtown and signed him up.

Mary was only 12 when she first laid eyes on the beefy boy with jet-black hair. Larry was a confident 18, already bringing home $1,000 a month from his new job.

For him, it was love at first sight, but relatives told him to steer clear.

“I’ll wait,” he told them.

Mary laughed when she heard he was interested. The pink-cheeked girl with fair skin and red hair would rather ride horses than think about boys.

Four years later, she changed her mind and started dating him. Two years after that, when Mary turned 18, he married her.

Larry worked at the heart of the mill, in “the pit,” where glowing molten steel drifted overhead in 340-ton ladles, then roared out of 31/2-inch holes.

It was like the heart of a volcano, smotheringly hot and ready to erupt. Potential fires and explosions lurked everywhere in the pit, a delicate balance of heat and heavy equipment, of flammable oxygen and water that could, on contact, detonate the liquid steel.

As one worker would say, “If someone said, ‘Jump!’ you did it – because if you didn’t, you’d be dead before you could say, ‘Huh?”‘

Many men couldn’t take it. The heat seared their skin, blistered their faces, made them vomit.

But heat is what helps make steel strong, and Larry thrived in the inferno. He grew so accustomed to it that when he came home and found the air conditioning on, he wrapped himself in a blanket, shivering.

He was good at his job, jotting notes in a logbook he carried every day, 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. Before he and Mary wed, half the calf of his right leg was burned off.

After they married, she sat at the kitchen table again and again with boiled rags and freshly disinfected tweezers, gently peeling off the dead skin, rinsing out the debris, bandaging his burns.

He never went to the infirmary. He would have been forced to take time off. He just scrubbed each wound in the shower and went home.

Mary never heard him complain.

The pain, after all, meant a good life. The couple lived in a trailer the first six years of their marriage, then moved to the house on a hill between New Cumberland and Weirton. They began collecting things – horse sculptures, Cherished Teddies, American Indian artwork.

When the babies they wanted didn’t come, they gave their love to other children – cheering on sons of Larry’s co-workers at high school football games, dressing as Santa and Mrs. Claus for the Newell parade and the sheriff’s Christmas party.

Every March, the mill paid workers a lump sum for their vacation time. Every store in town threw a sale.

Larry took his young wife shopping, at G.C. Murphy and McKinney Shoes and Denmark’s women’s clothing. He stocked up on flannel shirts and jeans. Some years, he swept Mary off for a long weekend in Myrtle Beach or Cincinnati.

The mill sold every pound of steel it made.

Steel was the spine that held the nation together, a mighty, ever-growing web of bridges, buildings and railroads. In times of peace, the mills made steel for cars and cans. In times of war, armor and bombs.

Demand swung back and forth, as it always had, but steelworkers believed their futures were as solid as the slabs they forged.

Looming trouble

For decades, the trouble that lay ahead loomed largely unseen.

Other countries were learning to make steel, and cheaply. In 1970, Japan sold twice as much steel to American buyers as Weirton produced.

The owners did not feel threatened. They cleaned up the air and built a more modern mill. They brightened the town by repainting the factories that surrounded it – blue on the stacks, orange on the pipe bridges, deep red on the blast furnaces.

Winky’s was serving up burgers. Women pushed strollers down Main Street to shop at the Stone & Thomas department store, while men bought clothes at Weisberger’s and Rodak’s. Hopeful city planners predicted the population would hit 33,000 by 1985.

Then consumer tastes began to shift, and aluminum and plastic packaging began to replace steel. Workers watched as slabs piled up, waiting for buyers.

If you can’t sell it, they knew, you can’t afford to make it.

A generation of mill workers began to die, and the one behind it started to see a future elsewhere. The layoffs began – 781 in 1977, 3,500 four years later.

Decisions by executives studying spread sheets half a world away began to have consequences for small-town America, stripping blue-collar workers of the two things they thought they’d always have – pride in a job well done and the power to control their own destinies.

When National announced in 1982 it would no longer invest in the mill – West Virginia’s only billion-dollar company and largest private employer – the town was shaken.

But Weirton was tough, and people adopted the slogan painted on the side of a giant oil tank: “Our future lies in cans! Not can’ts!”

Men like Larry had not been raised to give up easily. Each of the 9,000 workers left pulled $60 from his own pocket to pay for a study to see if they could buy the mill themselves and save their jobs.

They would have to find ways to make steel cheaper. They would have to take a 32 percent pay cut. And they did, buying the mill through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 1984.

The new Weirton Steel Corp. became the nation’s largest employee-owned company. The mill was smaller, but Larry still had a job. He cashed his dividend checks with pride.

For a while, things went well. But even more countries began exporting steel – Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Korea, China, each luring customers away from the more expensive American mills.

Workers give up

As Weirton’s profits shrank and equipment fell into disrepair, the workers began to give up ownership, selling off stock twice in the first decade. The mill lost $75 million in 1991, and as jobs vanished, Main Street lost tenants.

The G.C. Murphy five-and-dime went dark on one side of the street, Kusic Motors on the other. Firestone closed the tire shop. By 1994, even Stone & Thomas was empty.

Still, people fought.

In the fall of 1998, thousands marched down Main Street chanting, “Save our steel!” That night, they rallied at Weir High School, demanding the federal government stop imports.

But it was too late. Some 40 American steel companies filed for bankruptcy over the next three years, most shutting down permanently.

Weirton lost a staggering $533 million in 2001 and cut another 520 jobs.

That summer, Larry and Mary had taken their only real vacation, a Caribbean cruise on a boat called Destiny. Almost immediately, Larry regretted the extravagance.

Mary refused to feel guilty. Larry needed the vacation, she thought. He deserved it.

Two years later, in May 2003, Weirton Steel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Deep in debt and unable to dig out, workers realized they had to sell the mill they’d fought so hard to keep. All they could do was pray for a buyer that would care about it as much as they did.

The mill changed hands twice in the next 18 months, swapped by billionaires Wilbur Ross and Lakshmi Mittal like pieces on a Monopoly board.

Weirton had become part of the world’s largest steel company, but within months, Mittal told investors he would slash his work force by 45,000. The cuts, he said, would be mostly overseas.

People wanted to believe it. But in June 2005, Mittal shut down Weirton’s blast furnace and temporarily laid off 750 workers. Larry was one of them.

“No one cares about us,” he told Mary. “We’re just a number in someone’s book.”

Pit goes cold

Through the fall, Larry kept busy. He painted the house. He built a wishing well for a relative’s yard.

But his worries mounted when he realized a long-ago layoff had cost him the opportunity to collect a pension and retire early. He would have to work at least nine more years. Maybe 14.

By January, the temporary layoffs had become permanent for 950 workers. Most had accepted a buyout offer, allowing people with the most seniority to return to work.

Weirton no longer made raw steel, so the pit was cold. Larry was sent to one of the last working parts of the mill, a dark, cavernous building that sprawled over nearly 10 acres. Inside, workers reheated steel shipped in from Ohio and Maryland, then coated it with tin, zinc and chrome.

It was someone else’s job, and it felt like it. Larry had just two weeks to train on the machines that cut the finished product to the right width.

He didn’t move around as much as he used to. His leg, surgically reconstructed after an accident and held together with pins the past 15 years, ached constantly from standing still.

He worried it might not last.

He worried the mill might not last.

But mainly, he worried about the daunting tableau that lay before him each day in the control booth – pistol grips, gauges, video monitors and the small beige computer, raised to eye level, spitting out a constant stream of numbers in red and green.

He tried to absorb everything his trainers said, making careful notes in the battered log book he’d carried as long as Mary could remember. But the task seemed insurmountable.

“I’m stupid,” he told Mary, though she knew it wasn’t true. “I can’t get this job.”

Night after night, as she watched TV, he stared into space.

Fear began to consume him. Fear of misreading the computer. Fear of setting someone up for an accident. At the pit, he’d left each shift knowing it was safe for the next guy. Now, when the phone rang, he flinched.

“You’ll learn,” Mary told him. “You just need time.”

He told her he didn’t have it.

One evening during training, Larry came home without the log book. Someone had taken it from him, he told her. Someone had told him what he already feared – that he was stupid, that his notes were wrong.

Larry didn’t fight back when his co-worker threw the book away. He wasn’t even angry.

When Mary looked into his dark eyes, she saw a stranger.

“I’ve failed you,” he said, over and over. “We’re going to lose everything.”

On his 51st birthday, Jan. 24, she wrote him a letter.

I’ll love you no matter what, she said. I don’t care about the things, the money, the house. We can survive anything as long as we have each other.

Tortured trail

Mary doesn’t want to imagine Larry’s anguish in those final hours on Feb. 8. And in some ways, she doesn’t have to. He left behind a torturous trail of clues.

He’d started his morning routine and poured a glass of milk. Silverware was soaking in the sink, a bag of cooked chicken for the dogs sitting nearby on the counter.

In less than 24 hours, he would have to go back to the tin mill. To the computer.

Still wearing the heavy cotton bathrobe he’d folded around Mary for their goodbye kiss, Larry went into the bedroom, kneeled down and pulled out the box he kept under the bed. Inside was a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Larry sat on the edge of the bed. How long, no one knows. Then he raised his arm and fired two quick shots into the wall, close together, about a foot off the floor.

Perhaps surprised, perhaps dissatisfied with the outcome, he lay the gun on the bed. Then he picked up the case and leaned it against the wall, hiding the holes. He gathered the spent brass from the carpet, carried it to the kitchen and dropped it in the trash.

Police believe Larry went to the living room next, pulling a boot knife from a drawer.

He slashed at both wrists, but it was a halfhearted effort that left only superficial cuts. He wiped the knife off and put it back.

Then the phone rang. He bled onto the receiver as he brushed off Mary’s questions.

When he hung up, he trudged the few feet to the den, to the cabinet that held the rest of his guns. He opened the bottom door and picked out the .44-caliber revolver and a box of shells.

A few more steps, and he was in the living room. He fired, a single shot into his recliner. The bullet passed through the chair, through the floor below, into a pile of Christmas packages in the basement.

Then, standing in front of the sofa, he put the muzzle to his broad chest and fired again.

Mary still doesn’t know how Larry “screwed up.” He left no note.

She called the mill. His union steward said Larry had been doing fine, that he was learning, that he would have eventually mastered his new job.

Was he talking about the bullet holes in the wall? Those could be fixed.

Mary, who had discovered her own father’s suicide years earlier, could not be.

At Larry’s funeral, strangers hugged her. They cried. They stared.

As many as 800 people came, some in dress clothes, many in the jeans and boots they’d worn to work that day. Most stayed a long time. Most barely spoke.

But their eyes held questions: How could this happen? Should I have known?

And perhaps deeper, more troubling: Will that be me?

Weirton’s sidewalks are empty now. Its skies are clear. Where once trucks rumbled, there is silence. Barely 19,000 people live here, and most who do work elsewhere.

The welcome sign at the foot of Main Street still introduces a town “forged by steel,” but fewer than 1,200 workers remain at the mill.

Hope that Weirton will recapture its former glory has died, and hope that it can hang on much longer is not far behind. There are a few who believe Weirton can reinvent itself, but their voices are not loud.

Though Larry died by his own hand, Mary holds others responsible – the mill’s many owners, an industry that waited too long to change, politicians who didn’t protect it.

“We believe that Larry’s death was not a solitary act. We believe that it was in many ways assisted,” she wrote in an open letter after his funeral. “Larry was raised to believe that if you worked hard and did a good job, you could earn financial security for yourself and your family.

“We all believed that.”

Now hundreds of other families fear losing it all – their options limited, their pensions, savings and way of life all things of the past.

At the union hall, men look at each other more closely now, watching for signs of depression. Watching for another Larry.

That’s all Mary wants now – for people to watch, to listen, to care.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.