In the Black: Toughing It Out
Working underground 16 hours straight takes its toll on the body, and being cut by a utility knife and dragged by a power cable doesn’t help one bit.
I enjoyed the pain and suffering I endured underground, and I saw it through the eyes of the miners I worked with. We pushed one another to work harder and faster, work through our lunch, refusing to stop for rest, and pushed the other crew members. We wanted to be the elite of the coal mining industry. Working 12-hour shifts, eating while you move your equipment from entry to entry. pushing your body and your equipment to their limits. Not stopping until something, usually the body, breaks. We used electrical tape to hold the broken pieces together and keep pushing.
Thurman and I had been pushing one another all night. We came into work that evening with three places unbolted and the miner tearing coal from another before we had time to get our first piece of drill steel spinning. We were six hours into our shift and we knew it was going to be a long night. The plan was that we were going to square off the section and pull back the power center to begin pillaring. We knew that this shift could extend to 16 hours.
My clothes quickly soaked with sweat. Coal dust stuck to my body, changing the color of my white T-shirt into a cloudy gray. We pushed our equipment and ourselves. The hydraulic pump and electric motors put off an intense heat in the headings that had little to no air circulation. I stopped to take off my T-shirt, half laying on my side, half sitting up. As my shirt lifted over my head, I could feel the sweat run down my arm. I saw a dark red trail working its way across the tattoo on my forearm and into the bend of my elbow. At first glance I thought I had scraped my hand on the roof of the mine, but as the adrenaline wore off and I tried to stop the bleeding it became clear this was more than a scrape. I noticed the utility knife on my mining belt, the blade had opened and had cut the top of my hand as I pulled the tail of my shirt. Whether I needed stitches or not was questionable, and before I would allow anyone to make that decision for me, I placed my hand into the dust box of the roof bolter to allow the limestone and shale to clot the blood. I shook off the excess dust and tightly wrapped MSHA grade electrical tape (otherwise known as Black Tape) around my hand. There was no rest for me on that night. I was determined to catch the miner before he made his last cut. Thurman and I had a goal in mind and we were not going to let anything get in our way. We knew that if we could catch the miner in his last cut we could get one break to eat a snack and while the rest of the crew worked on moving the cables for the power move we could finish bolting the last cut.
This would be our last time operating the roof bolter for a few weeks, maybe months. We would begin pillaring, retreat mining, until we had pulled back to the next panel of fresh coal. As the night went on we made up time and began to catch up to the miner. Mostly due to the long haul of the shuttle cars and the sporadic movement of the continuous miner to finish up the last open cross cut. We hoped that in the time that it took us to bolt the last cut the rest of the crew would have most of the cables moved and we could avoid the heavy lifting. I can tell you that dragging a 4-inch diameter cable that is several hundred feet long with a 40-pound plug attached is no fun. The last cut was only 20 feet deep and we had 5 rows of roof bolts in it much quicker than we had anticipated. As we trammed the roof bolter towards the power center we saw Scott and Thor tramming the continuous miner around the corner and to the back of the power center.
“What the hell are they doing?”
As Carl, Lonnie, and Rick worked together to drag the miner’s cable around the pillar of coal Lonnie grunted.
“Aaron said he had to go pre-shift the out-by areas so the bull crew could come in and start rock dusting the return. So we’re gonna hook up to the power center and pull it with the cables and knock this thing out. We ain’t interested in pulling another 16 tonight, it’s Friday.”
(This was very much illegal and has been frowned upon for decades, but it still happens. When you move a power center the high voltage power, which feeds the 10,000 volt power center, is shut off. The cables for the equipment are disconnected. The large sub-station/power center is then moved by a large scoop to its new location while the miners hang, or in this case drop, and loop up the high voltage cable. This cable is roughly 6 inches round and solid copper, and it feeds the power center. Then the equipment cables are moved, reconnected, and power is restored. In this instance we were going to leave all cables connected, leave the power on, and drag everything to the new location and drop the high voltage cable while it was energized.
Thurman looked at me and laughed. I guess he could see the look of fear in my eyes. I had never been a part of such a dangerous exercise and had no idea what to expect. Scott crawled up to the power center and gave orders.
“Gary, I need you and Thor to hand feed these car cables and pinner cables around the blocks so they don’t stretch and get any shorts. Thurman, you and Carl drop the high line cable as I pull it with the miner. We got some gloves from Jerry’s box if you want to wear them. We gotta bust ass and get this done before Aaron gets back. He will fire me if he finds out what we’re doing.”
As Scott turned to crawl back to the miner, Thor and I began to furiously pull car cables and roof bolter cables around the corner allowing them to pile up around us. As the miner began to pull the trailer and power center, I could see the excess cable behind me traveling like a snake, slithering through the inches of rock dust surrounding the entry.
Then, once more in my life, I fell to the floor of the mine and everything went black. I could feel the cables pulling tight around my ankles and boots while my body was being dragged across the floor of the mine. My T-shirt had gotten caught on a rock or piece of coal, and it was being pulled up under my armpits as the rough ground scraped and scratched my back. I could see the light bouncing off the roof of the mine as my hard hat danced on the ground behind me. I liked to think it enjoyed the ride. When my body came to a stop, I heard Thor laughing from 100 feet away and Thurman cursing at Scott for tramming the miner so fast making it hard for him to drop the high voltage cable and loop it up properly. I tried to quickly recover my hard hat and removed the cables from my ankles, but it was too late. The rest of the crew had spotted my situation and began to poke fun.
“Bentley, you lazy piece of sh**. I’ve heard of people riding the cable, but I have yet to see anyone go to sleep and tie off just to get a free ride.”
Ignoring the cuts on my back, I pulled my shirt down over my skin, dusted myself off, and helped rearrange the cables so that Aaron would never know what had happened. This was just another life lesson in mining that as a miner you don’t take the easy way out. It’s hard work and the promise of a pay check.
Gary Bentley is a former underground miner from Eastern Kentucky.