Just another night. Was it night? It all seemed the same in the mine. It was so damned dark, if your headlamp went out you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
Thurman and I were soaked with sweat. We had been pinning top since 3 and it was just past 8. We didn’t stop for a sandwich or a snack. It was our normal routine when we were running good, or as we always say “puttin’ her in the black.” The coal seam had shrunk to a mere 30 inches. It was like trying to work under your kitchen table. Bodies all twisted up, lying on our sides in the mud and grit, sweating out any water we would drink. It was hot as hell. We had mined so deep, we couldn’t get the proper amount of air to circulate the heat generated by the mining equipment. But we didn’t mind, because they were paying us good and that’s all we were concerned with.
Lonnie, a shuttle car operator working the section, continuously picked at Thurman and me as he traveled by. That was his thing. He trammed his shuttle car across the section singing old country tunes. “Sleeeeeepin’ single in a double bed.” He knew he sounded like sh** and was annoying the hell out of Thurman. He would sing a line from a different song each time he passed by. I laughed and told Thurman if he could get us a break, I would dance at his wedding. Like always, Thurman just smiled and threw a rock, being sure to hit me right between the legs.
With the miner man cutting clean coal and the seam height dropping, I felt like we would never get caught up. But it never failed that when Thurman took charge, we’d finish early and get a break. He was a hell of a miner, old enough to be my dad. His son was graduating high school with my girlfriend the following month. He had been roof bolting for 12 years, seen a few men get crushed, but only one who died. I always joked that if he had started seven years earlier, he could have been a pinner man as long as I’d been alive. Then I’d get hit between the legs with another rock.
Finally, we caught up and got a break. We sat on the back of the roof bolter backed up close enough to the intersection to catch a bit of a breeze, which also meant it was Thurman’s turn to tease Lonnie. Each time Lonnie passed on his shuttle car, Thurman would talk to him.
“You still gonna pay me to get your sister pregnant?”
“You know that boy of yours sure looks an awful lot like me. He’s got my good looks.”
“It’s a shame you can’t sit here and enjoy this bologna sandwich your wife made for me.”
These crude one liners would go on until it was time for us to start back pinnin’. Just as Thurman started to spit out another insult, he was drowned out by the roar of the miners cutting through the wall. The dust rolled over us before we could grab a rag to cover our faces. The mist from the water sprays gently soaked our skin, but it felt good. I crawled up to the side of the pinner and embraced the gust of cool air, water, and smell of sulfur. Thurman shook his cap light at me. “Get the f*** outta there. You’re crazy! You’re gonna get black lung breathin’ that sh** in.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll be all right. Probably gonna get that sh** anyway.”
As the miner backed out, we trammed the pinner up to the opening the miner had punched through, a 20–foot-wide, 40-foot-long space of unsupported rock. We didn’t know how much mountain was above our heads or if we were under the lake that was somewhere up on the surface. None of us really looked at the maps. We just knew we were deep and it took more than an hour to get there on a diesel mantrip. As we listened to the drill bits on the roof bolters chew through the shale, limestone, and old dinosaur bones, we kept our ears open for any signs of cracking, the dribble of rock, sounds that might tell us to run.
Thurman once told me, “You know them dumbass kids driving around in those S-10 pickups that thump, thump, and the whole damn neighborhood shakes? Well, you ever hear a thump like that, run the other way. Sh**’s comin’ down.” On this day, we didn’’t hear anything, just Lonnie singing more country songs as he passed by.
A few minutes later we heard Lonnie again. “Hey, Thurman! Come here. I need your help.” Thurman ignored him.
“Hey Gary! Come here. Get over here!” I ignored him as well. Lonnie was always trying to mess with us.
But then the silence hit, or maybe we just had a gut feeling. Something told us to shut off the roof bolter and go see what was wrong.
We hesitated and waited too long. I could see Lonnie lying there beside his shuttle car. He was covered in blood, not saying anything, motionless. I was a trained mine emergency technician, a first responder. I froze. I didn’t know how much time had passed. Seconds, minutes, an hour. When I got to Lonnie, he was bleeding badly, his right glove was mangled. There were pieces of what looked like flesh protruding through the material.
“What happened, Lonnie? What happened?”
“My hand got wedged between the roof of the shuttle car and the top. I don’t know, I panicked, I just gave it fuel hoping to get my hand out.”
“All right, you’re gonna be fine. We’ll take care of you and get you out of here,” I said. “Thurman, get the kit off the roof bolter and bring my clean shirt.”
I was in a trance. Everything was a blur. I was acting, moving, and watching myself go through the motions as if I was having some sort of out-of-body experience. I was not conscious of my actions. I was acting out of muscle memory, training, and fear. At some time, through the process of controlling the bleeding and waiting on a ride out for Lonnie, his adrenaline wore off and shock started to take over. My adrenaline was dropping, too, and I was feeling weak. Luckily, the foreman showed up and took over. He started toward the surface with Lonnie. They couldn’t have driven more than 20 feet when I felt my stomach turn. Everything inside me came screaming out. It felt like an explosion inside of me. I puked, I cried, and I puked some more. Then I went back to finish pinnin’ the cut through.
We finished roof bolting that last cut. I knew then that I needed to go to the foreman and secure the accident site for investigation. We locked out the power supply to the shuttle car and other mining equipment, loaded up the man trip and traveled outside. When we arrived at the edge of the portal, we could see the federal inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. They were joined by the mine superintendent and the safety director.
We all gathered in the locker room for a safety discussion and debriefing. It was short and to the point. We all knew what had happened. An accident. Nothing more and nothing less. It was in the response after the accident that the problems occurred. The warehouse clerk didn’t call an ambulance like we had requested. He put Lonnie in the passenger seat of our warehouse truck. It was an old, beat-up truck we used to haul supplies off the top of the mountain down to the portal. The truck had broken down 10 miles from the local hospital. He didn’t have a cell phone and was just lucky that a passing motorist stopped by to call an ambulance. They waited on the side of the highway for an ambulance. After arriving at the hospital Lonnie, was denied medication for the pain because the company required a drug exam first. They wanted to be sure that Lonnie could pass a drug test, never mind the fact that he had just mangled his hand and was in tremendous pain. That was of no concern to them. They needed to cover their ass first.
As the years passed and I spent more time underground, I realized that was normal, no big deal. Lonnie survived. Hell, he only lost three and a half fingers, not bad at all for a mining accident. He was back to work in a couple of months and still singing songs and teasing Thurman.
“Sixteen tons and what you get? Three fingers less and medical debt.”
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. “In the Black” appears on Mondays in the Daily Yonder.