Photo by Lance Booth.

Something wasn’t right. I was bolting top and had finished two cuts, but the continuous miner still hadn’t moved across the section, like it should have.

They were cutting the heading in the #8 entry, so I knew they were not turning a new break, which took longer. I cleaned my dust box and watched for another shuttle car to come by. Randy was the only car hauling. He was operating the car that dumped on the off-side of the feeder and had to haul the farthest. There had to be a reason Brian and Jack, who were operating the cars closer to me, weren’t hauling. I needed to know why.

I put on my long sleeve shirt to block the chill of the air blowing across the section and started crawling. I scrambled over the cable that supplied power to the miner and heard the roar of the scrubber running. But there was no vibration in the ground, and I could not hear the bits chewing against the coal. The miner was sitting idle.

I duck-walked across the section. I heard the feeder chains smacking against the bottom plate and the belt line splices smacking the tail piece. My first thought was, “Who the hell lined that up? Didn’t they use a plum bob? Didn’t they shoot their mark off of the spads?” Then the truth of the matter came to mind: They were not loading coal onto the belt.

Before I made it to the belt entry I saw the problem. The #6 entry had collapsed. I continued over to the #5 entry, where the belt was running, and walked down to the first cross cut. I shined my cap light across the open line of intersections and saw nothing. I walked to the next cross cut, just up from the feeder. When I looked across the line I could see the on-side dump car sitting there with no power. A few more cross-cuts down, the front-side dump car was parked on the feeder and the off-side dump car was parked just in front of the power center. There I saw Brian, Jack, Roger, and El-Rod.

“Hey, y’all, how bad of a fall we got over there?” I asked.

El-Rod was on the mine phone and didn’t notice I had arrived. Jack, whom I had been introduced to as my new step-brother some weeks ago, answered.

“The whole damned intersection fell just across from the dump. I dumped my last load and then when I started back towards the miner, I heard the sound and felt the air blow across my neck. I had no idea it was that close. When I lost power and the brakes locked up, I turned to see it had fallen just 10 feet from my rear bumper. I don’t think I’ve got across the section that fast in all my life.”

Brian chimed in. “Yea, I saw Jay come running across the section. All humped up like a cat sh****’ and I knew something was wrong. I went ahead and got my load. When I came back El-Rod told me to park my car and not dump just yet. He said Waylon was gonna have to take the miner down there and build you all a ramp to get it bolted back up.”

At that moment I decided I had worked too long for a foreman who didn’t have my safety in mind. I made up my mind then and there that I was going to become a mine foreman myself.

A fire ran through me and I erupted while El-Rod talked on the phone. “Hey, El-Rod, are you out of your f***ing mind?! You’re gonna build a ramp, have us use one of these low seam pinners to bolt back that f***ing roof fall and you’re gonna start back punching these cross cuts through!? Tell them I want a ride outside! I ain’t putting up with your f***ing sh** anymore!”

El-Rod was suggesting that we use our bolting equipment, which was designed for low seams, to bolt the much higher ceiling that had resulted from the collapse of the #6 entry. To get our equipment to do the job, they would have to build a ramp, essentially raising the floor to compensate for the higher ceiling.

El-Rod continued talking as if he couldn’t hear anything I was saying, so I crawled over a little closer and said: “El-Rod, I know you can hear me. You’re not f***ing deaf! Did you get me a ride out?!”

He turned to me and very calmly said: “Yes, you’re going to bolt that with your roof bolter when we get a ramp built. You can bolt the short cut we got in #8 while we work on the ramp. You will have time to eat a snack and get a rest in while we finish the ramp. I’m not screwing you over. If you can’t do the job and you want to quit, that’s fine. I’ll call for a ride and I’ll bolt the god damned thing myself!”

I thought to myself “God damnit, he knows how to get me every time. There’s no way in hell I’m going to let him bolt a place for me. I’m just as good as he is.” So I said nothing. I turned around and duck walked back to the roof bolter.

I shared the news with Mike and we trammed the roof bolter to the #8 entry and began to do our job. El-Rod was right. It was a short cut, maybe 20 feet at the most. We were done before Waylon and the crew had the miner set up to build our ramp. We took this time to load our supplies and eat a snack. Then we joined Waylon and El-Rod by the miner to survey the situation and look for any additional dangers.

In between the shuttle cars being loaded and Waylon trying to chew up the rock and coal to build a ramp, I checked the test holes for roof conditions. (A test hole is drilled into the roof of the mine, usually 12 inches deeper than the standard roof bolt being used at the time. In this case, that meant the test hole was about 10 feet deep.) I used my measuring tape, feeding it up into the hole, knowing that if it would not extend the full length that the top had shifted and damaged the integrity of our roof control. If the measuring tape did extend the full length of the hole, then I slid the tape out slowly feeling for cracks. If the strata had cracked, the metal tab at the end of the tape line would catch in the crack instead of sliding out smoothly. Granted, this was not a perfect method. There was an option to bring a video scope into the mine to investigate, but that was expensive, and it might take days or weeks to get a crew into the mine with the proper equipment. So there I was, relying on a measuring tape, my guts, and sensitivity of my hands and arms to judge the quality of the roof and the safety of every miner working on that section.

This case was easily solved. Seventy-five inches into the test hole, my measuring tape stopped. It wasn’t a crack. It wasn’t a small piece of rock or debris. The top had shifted, blocking the hole just 3 inches above our standard roof bolt. If the top had shifted there, that meant the much longer cable bolts that provided additional support for the ceiling were damaged. If the 6-foot beam of strata we had built with roof bolts gave way, there was nothing else to hold it. Directly in front of us, we could see the results. The strata had failed at the intersection and collapsed.

I told El-Rod about the test hole. “Ahh sh**, quit being a p***y,” he said. “Someone just forgot to drill that thing all the way up. This was a fluke. There ain’t nothing else gonna fall.”

I guess he had forgotten about the intersection that had fallen the week before, or the roof-control issues we had getting the slope cut down to the coal. He was too worried about mining coal and hitting production goals to care about safety. This is what we call “smotherin’.”

At that moment I decided I had worked too long for a foreman who didn’t have my safety in mind. I made up my mind then and there that I was going to become a mine foreman myself. I would refuse to “smother out” over production. Safety would come first, production second. That’s what I told myself. But in the back of my mind, I wondered whether the job would make me just like the mine foreman’s I despised.

Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.

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