Posted July 6th 2011 at 10:02 am by
in The Thoughtful Coal Miner

Two Miles to Hell: A Miner's Story

It is 10:06 p.m. on a Sunday night and I begin getting dressed in my high visibility work uniform, the trademark navy shirt and pants with orange stripes identifying the Appalachian coal miners in our area. My wife has taken time to fill my thermos with coffee and pack my “bucket” with the night’s lunch and necessities. The children have already gone to bed with hugs and kisses from their daddy, and now it’s time to bid a loving farewell to my wife. We hold one another and softly kiss, both of us wishing I didn’t have to go. I go outside where the crisp winter air meets me and climb into my truck. She watches me through the storm door, a darkened silhouette as the glass begins to fog, obscuring her features. She waves and I blow her a kiss and we both sign to one another “I love you”. Sometimes I can faintly see her lips moving in a prayer for my safe return.

My state of mind is relatively poor. The weekend is brought to a symbolic end as I turn the key to start the diesel engine hidden beneath the hood of my ten year old Dodge truck. I begin backing down the driveway struggling with the notion of stopping, putting the gear shifter in 1st to make a defiant return home. Each weekend feels meaningless and I am never ready to return to work.

The third shift, or “Hoot owl” as we call it, makes enjoying time with my family difficult on the weekends. The two “days” off I receive are spent trying to switch my sleeping habits around to match the rest of the world. It isn’t uncommon for me to spend the first and last days of my weekend staying awake for 24 hours in a futile attempt to maximize time with my family. I am often quick tempered and hateful though I do not mean to be. As I leave the homestead I begin regretting the things I may have said to my family. Some nights I hope I will have the chance to apologize to them the next day.

My trip to the mines only takes fifteen minutes to traverse the mountainous roads separating my home from the mine. As I drive along I notice snow sparsely beginning to fall into the illumination of my headlights, I realize I am extremely fortunate to live so close to this particular underground mine site. Some of the men I work with must travel upwards of one hour from distances over 45 miles away to get to work. I simply cannot fathom how someone would be willing to give up an extra two hours a day to make the drive, time they could be spending with their families even if it meant going without the extra money.

A few miles up the road I pass by the Longs Fork Elementary School where I attended kindergarten through seventh grade. Some nights I recall the many aspirations I had and the countless times my dad told me to do well in school so I wouldn’t become a coal miner. I smirk a little as I remembered wanting to be a cardiologist after our teacher told us about heart bypasses and transplants. Although I never made it into the “Gifted and Talented” program the wealthier kids were in, I still made honor roll more times than not. Now, each night I pass by the school I am reminded of my many failures in life, especially when I’m depressed.

I arrive at the mines and saunter into the bathhouse to put on my steel toed boots, utility belt, and hard hat. I then make my way down to the lamp house to remove my wheat lamp from the charger, putting the battery in my belt pouch and the lamp on my hard hat. I hope it got a good charge over the weekend since it will be my primary source of illumination for the next eight hours I’ll be spending in the pitch black darkness of the mines.

There are many miners already milling around, drinking coffee and socializing before having to go underground. Greetings to one another almost always include the informal, “How ya doin’?” with a response of either a halfhearted insult or a sarcastic remark about feeling great. Everyone is trying to smoke their last cigarette and get together what supplies they will need underground from the supply clerks who vehemently defend against excess with scornful comments and shakes of their head. No one is trying to think of what lies ahead within the next shift.

Coal miners are an interesting sort of people, more “redneck” than anything. The foul language you’d hear from a group of coal miners at work would rival that of any naval ship there ever was, is, or will be. Topics of conversation range from the evening’s football games to what is going on in the Nascar series. Other men will talk about the sexual escapades with their girlfriends or wives while prodding other men with questions of whether their wife will try such a lude act, all of which aim to incite a reaction from them.

Current politics surrounding coal mining are also a source of discussion amongst miners as they derogatorily refer to environmentalists as tree-huggers who need to go without electricity for awhile. President Obama regularly receives third person tongue lashings for his environmental ideals and one co-worker believes all Muslims should be shot on the spot for being terrorists.

Eleven o’clock roles around and it is time to start the shift. I climb onto the diesel powered man trip that would remind you of a long rectangular roofless Jeep Wrangler and my crew starts the journey into the large portal and down into the darkness.

Some sections are only one and a half miles from the entrance while others are two and three miles. The “cover” over top ranges from four hundred feet to eighteen hundred feet thick as the mine has tunneled underneath various hills and hollows. The men who survived the Quecreek incident in Pennsylvania were only underneath two hundred and forty feet of cover when they became trapped by rising water. I know that if a similar situation occurs at my mine, drilling down to send in a man cage would be much more difficult. I try not to think of what can happen in here. There are so many ways to be seriously injured or killed and with every shift, every hour, every minute I face the same risks. Being torn apart or suffocated by an explosion, finding myself trapped alive by a roof fall, or having a large rock crush me. As the mantrip lumbers on over rough underground roads I wonder which it will be.

Our mantrip passes by a reminder of the Sago disaster in the form of new “Safe Havens” and “Life Shelters” designed to provide us with ninety-six hours of breathable air and enough supplies to sustain us if we were to become trapped. I know that in truth we are more likely to be killed instantaneously in a disaster than to live and make an attempt at survival within these underground shelters. I put all of these thoughts in the back of my mind, forget about them, and try to focus on what we will have to do once we reach the section.

I wish I could say the many safety laws and regulations which have been put into place help to console these fears as well. The truth is, they are only laws and regulations and will only work if practiced. The upper echelons of coal companies have become more safety oriented knowing now that serious injuries and fatalities are extremely detrimental to their public image and profits. Still they push production and scare men into thinking layoffs will be performance based if the coal industry falls upon hard times. Many men are so terribly far in debt, such thoughts of losing their income lead them consciously and sometimes subconsciously to do stupid things, things that could get them or many others hurt.

Even taking out the human element of danger, this is still a coal mine and all too often pieces of rock fall from the top taking the most experienced miners by surprise. I have been spared many times by sheer luck, having stood in one place, moved, and only moments later seen a rock fall in that previous location large enough to kill me. It is not an uncommon occurrence as almost every man who has worked in the mine has witnessed a similar incident. An intelligent man would leave the mines and not return after such close calls, but instead we joke about it and tell stories later to seem more death defying and interesting to other people.

Coal mining is rigorous work despite the mechanization of coal production. My great grandfather and grandfather were a coal miners during the pick and shovel days. They experienced the early times of arduous labor, having to purchase their own tools and dynamite to extract coal they were paid for by the ton, not by the hour. My great grandfather’s golden years were less than golden as he slowly smothered to death from black lung. My memories of him involve oxygen equipment and his inability to walk but just a few feet before he was gasping for his next breath. While there is no comparison to the labor intensity of mining practices conducted over a half century ago, it still requires a great deal of physical effort in today’s mines. Long shifts combined with mandatory overtime contribute to ongoing fatigue within today’s mining workforce. Sickness runs rampant during the winter months from weakened immune systems caused by the temperature changes of going in and out of the mines, improper diet, and lack of rest. Being a coal miner is most certainly not for everyone.

Many times I have wondered why people endure these conditions along with the risk of injury or death. For most the reason is two fold, a love of coal mining with the deep rooted pride of doing something most people would fear to do, and money … mostly money. For me, it was simply about money and trying to get little bit ahead so I could go back to school or take additional training. Coal mining jobs in our region are the most widely available and highest paying due to the lack of other industry. Few other industries will locate to our area as a result of sub-standard, poorly maintained road systems, and lack of an educated work force. It is not an uncommon belief that the coal industry has silently kept it this way from the time they started operating here. After all, they need a work force to extract the coal and the less competition for a workforce they have, the better.

Experience is not necessary, nor is having a clear criminal background, or even a high school diploma. Coal operations look for someone with decent common sense, strong work ethic, and now due to state and federal laws, workers who are drug free. To the coal industry’s advantage, people who have been living in the Appalachian Mountains have many of these attributes. Life here has always been tough and many families have been here since the time these wild mountains were tamed. Survival meant building your own home, growing your own food, and making all of your necessities from scratch. This continued for many households until the lumber and coal barons gave false hopes of a better life as a result of their money.

“Work hard, play hard” is the motto amongst younger generation coal miners who irresponsibly spending their extra dollars to enjoy what little time they have off. Most of these men are deep in debt having bought expensive homes, nice vehicles, boats, RVs, and ATVs. Some even center what payments they can afford based upon how much overtime they plan on working. It is a vicious cycle that keeps coal miners scared for fear of losing everything they have, working to the advantage of the coal company’s production.

I arrive at my section and begin work. Most of my surroundings are white with the rock dust that is applied to every surface in an effort to neutralize the explosive power of the fine coal dust that is covering them. The temperature is cool, but not cold and the mine floor is muddy with some water holes to wade through. I look at the mine roof just above my head which in this particular mine and section varies from six to eight feet high. It is covered in a pattern of roof bolts that have been drilled and glued into the above layers of rock to hold it to together. The ideology is that the glued layers of rock create a “beam” between the rectangular blocks of coal we leave to support the mines. This practice has long since taken the place of mine timbers, but still comes with risks. I have seen these supports fail and have seen deadly rocks fall out from in between them. I look to make sure that the plates of the bolts are not bent down showing that they are taking to much weight and could fall in.

I am a “pinner man” or roof bolter operator. I am the one who, with a partner, goes into unknown territory after every cut of coal is pulled out by the continuous miner. There are no supports to hold up this top, and it is my job to make the “rock beam” and spot any dangers that need to be corrected. If I don’t do my job right someone could find death walking under the supports I have installed. The evening shift has just stopped cutting with the continuous miner and there are several places “down” or in need of being roof bolted. It is now time to go to work. My “bolting buddy” and I relieve the evening shift pinner men who grab their buckets and take off like rockets towards their mantrip. I take off my long sleeve shirt and expose my t-shirt underneath because I know I will soon be hot and sweating. The job is very physical, slinging around six-foot one-inch diameter roofbolts, handling a hot drill steel, and using a long pry bar to bring down large rocks weighing sometimes hundreds of pounds that are just barely hanging in front of you. All of this coupled with the heat generated by the machine keeps you in desperate need of water all through the shift.

Hours go by and I am told that the day shift’s mantrip is rumbling up to the section. I gather all of my belongings from the roof bolter and head towards the mantrip with my bolting buddy. It is going to be a cold trip out since the lows are only in the teens. I bundle up the best I can and attempt to cover all of my wet clothes from all of the sweating I have done. Exiting the mine during the winter mornings can be painful because the slope of the mine draws in 250,000 cubic feet a minute of intake air. When outside temperatures drop below freezing any water coming from the roof of the slope will freeze into massive hundred pound icicles, and the road we drive on becomes iced over.

The mantrip finally makes the five minute trip up the slope and into the dim morning sunlight that greets me as we exit the portal. There is now a few inches of snow on the ground, but the cold seems too have lessened as we are no longer forcing our way up through a tunnel of frigid moving air. I repeat the very process I began some eight hours earlier except in reverse. I choose not to shower in the bathhouse because the more time I can spend at home, even if it is in my shower is precious to me. I ease my way home with my truck in four wheel drive on the now snow covered roads. Sometimes my wife and baby girl are already awake and have the door open to greet me, but this morning they are still sound asleep. I take a warm shower washing off the night’s grease and dirt, blowing my nose several times to help clear out all of the blackened mucus from the coal dust I breathed in. My wife is up by now and has fixed me a bowl of cereal to help keep my hunger pangs down before I sleep. She helps to tuck me into bed and I pray that today my children are little quieter so I can get a full day of sleep.

Like many others of my generation I tried to heed the warnings of my father, uncles, grandfathers, and great grandfather. They always pushed me and my brother to get a better education and stay away from the mines. My brother entered the military where he is still serving today to avoid employment in the mines. My life up until the past two years had been spent with those same intentions of avoiding the mines. I studied hard in school but due to a lack of funding and in many cases a rebellious attitude, I failed to go to college. Instead I chose to move away and try my talents in different places, all of which seemed to fail. My times away from home were short and I was ultimately called back to the mountains which I love. I learned and gained experience though, something that helped me get a job in a call center, the best alternative to a coal mining job in our region. I managed to work my way up as far as I could go, but as is common with many such jobs in the area, wages are just enough to live off of with little hopes of retirement. This is especially true if you have a family to provide for. As time went on it became evident that the income of such a job was insufficient to achieve any long term financial goals for my family. I pushed my many negative mental paradigms of the coal industry aside as I became enchanted by the high wage offerings of the coal industry. I took a job as an underground coal miner at the age of twenty-eight, and now, two years later, I am deeply regretting my decision with a new found resentment for the coal industry.

Growing up I have always known that the coal industry is not a friend of our community. Strip mining that occurred near our homes took away many of the beautiful forests and abundant wildlife that my brother and I enjoyed as children. I witnessed first hand the greed and disrespect that the coal companies showed toward their employees during the 1989 UMWA strike against Pittston Coal Company. 

Note to the reader:

When I first began writing the article for the Appalachian Voice I was still working at Deep Mine 26. Fearing retribution from the company I worked for and possibly even some of my co-workers I took the editors advice and used the pen name of Daniel Hawkins. I also changed my job description and omitted many things which could have identified the mine I worked at or myself. Although I wasn’t a pinner man at the time I wrote the article, I had been before. The first six months I spent as an undgeround miner I ran a roofbolter and a shuttle car on a coal crew. I was then accepted into the mine electrician training program and received my electrical certifications. I was an electrical repairmain or “Maintenance man” until I left in August of 2010. 

My decision to shed my alternate identity and finally face the world as one person has only been made recently. I am free of the bonds of annonymity and I look foward to writing as myself, as it should be. My apologies to anyone who may have felt I was being dishonest with them. I only had my family’s best interests in mind.

— Nick Mullins

aka Daniel Hawkins

This is the never before seen full version / rough draft of my first article, published in the March – May 2010 edition of Appalachian Voices. Thanks to the folks at Appalachian Voices for publishing it!

Post by Nick Mullins.  This post originally appeared in Nick’s blog, Out of the Coal Mines and Into the Fire, on Friday, July 1, 2011.

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