In the Black: Lonely at the Top
The job that makes coal mines safer for everyone is also one of the most dangerous to perform. Maybe that’s why it pays well.
The only way to move up in the ranks as a coalminer is through skill, experience, and knowledge.
I was still relatively new to the job, and to most of my co-workers, I was inexperienced. I had four years working underground. I could efficiently operate a scoop, shuttle car, and a ram car. But I knew if I wanted to earn more money, gain the respect of the other miners, and advance my career, I needed to learn how to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the industry. I needed to become an experienced roof bolter.
“Hey, Scott. If I get some free time can I come up and learn how to bolt top?”
“Sure thing. Just remember if you learn how to pin top, you ain’t gonna do nothing else for the rest of your time in the mines. You know what I’m sayin’, right?”
Roof bolters make the mine safer for everyone who works underground. But the job itself is one of the most dangerous. Bolters work under freshly cut roof that lacks support. And if a section collapses, they are first ones back in to secure the roof so mining can continue. Miners who learn to pin top remain in high demand, and the company wants them to make the most of those skills, even if the miner might prefer a different job.
Scott explained. “I’m a ‘miner’ man,” he said, meaning that he liked to operate the continuous miner at face of the coal. “But because I can bolt top and I am fast, I always get put back in the pinner.”
“Yea, I don’t care,” I said. “I know I have to learn to do it if I wanna get off this scoop.”
I worked as fast as I could to clean the entries, hang the curtain, and clean the feeder. I crawled down to the power center in hopes of finding Aaron as quick as possible.
“Aaron, if I’m caught up and Scott and Thurman are finished bolting the cut behind the miner, can I get them to teach me how to pin top?”
“Gary, I ain’t going to stop anyone from learning how to pin top. You keep caught up on your job and don’t hold them up. I would encourage you to learn everything you can.”
I duckwalked up the belt entry and across the last open crosscut, stepping over the cable of a shuttle car that nearly tripped me as its reel pulled tight. I dropped to my knees and crawled up the #5 entry. I stopped to see Thurman pulling cable by hand as Scott backed the roof bolter to the edge of the cross cut.
“You guys busy right now? Any chance I can try to put a bolt up?”
Scott just smiled and looked over to Thurman before speaking.
“Hey Thurman, you wanna show him how it’s done while I clean my dust box, or you want me to and you can clean your side?”
Thurman laughed a little then shined his cap light into my eyes.
“Kid, I’m only gonna tell ya this one time. You don’t wanna learn how to do this. You’ll be stuck doing this for the rest of your life. I’ve been bolting top for 16 years and can’t get away from it. If you’re determined to learn though, I’ll help you out. Do you know how any of the controls work?”
I had only seen the controls on roof bolters when I worked at Consol, I didn’t like either of the operators there and I never hung around long enough to learn how the machine operated. In my short time at Enterprise, I would often hang around to watch Scott, Thor, Thurman, and Carl bolt top, but I didn’t know much more than what I had witnessed in the short amounts of time I was around them. Regardless, I lied.
“Yea, I’ve put a couple of bolts before, but I wanna get better and get some practice in. I know they’re moving folks around with the new section going in, and I’d like to get a better paying job if one comes up.”
“All right then, son,” Thurman said. “Go fire it up and get to drilling. I’ll sit a few feet back and keep my hand on the panic bar.”
Luckily for me, Thurman was there and did just as he said. I put the “starter” drill steel into the pot and slowly began to apply pressure to the joystick raising the drill bit closer to the top. As the drill pot would lunge upward an inch or two then stop, lunge and inch or two, then stop, I could not find the sweet spot for a slow and continuous motion toward the roof of the mine. When the drill bit touched the roof, I gently applied pressure and began to move the joystick toward the angle for rotation. My eyes were focused on the joystick control and not on the steel. What I didn’t see is that as I was slowly moving the joystick to the upper left corner, I was slowly applying more pressure to the steel and only slowly rotating the bit. The amount of pressure being applied was too great for what little amount of rotation I was applying to the bit and the steel had begun to bend, pushing out into my direction. Thurman pressed the panic bar with the toe of his boot, and the hydraulic pumps shut off, slowing in rotation with a droning sound into silence.
“Goddamn, Gary. You just warped my best piece of starter steel. I thought you had put up a bolt before. You didn’t even hit the rotation. Listen, I know you want to learn, but this is the most dangerous job in the mine. Don’t lie to anyone about your experience. This is not a place to be shy or try to hide your inexperience. If you have never done something, you could kill someone else but most likely you’re going to kill yourself. So, what I want you to do is drop that drill pot, remove the steel, then fire this thing up and just work the controls until you are comfortable and able to operate them smoothly. I’m gonna be in the deck eating my sandwich. If you get scared just push on that red piece of rubber. It will shut everything off.”
As Dana backed the miner out of the belt entry, I scrambled back to my scoop. I had my eyes on a goal and I was not going to let anything stop me. I worked my ass off for two weeks so that I could spend five, 10, or 15 minutes practicing on the roof bolter. In two weeks I was putting up the last few rows of bolts for Thurman and Scott. In three weeks I was roof bolting punch throughs for them. I had not yet earned the honor of calling myself a roof bolter, but I was on my way. Come hell or high water, or maybe hell or a roof fall, I would become a roof bolter.
Gary Bentley is a former underground miner from Eastern Kentucky.