In the Black: Tug of War with 1,000 Volts
When heavy equipment pulls a power cable “as tight as a banjer string,” something has to give.
A NOTE TO READERS: Coal miners cuss. We’ve “encrypted” the expletives but tried not to tamper with the underlying flavor of the language. If you like your fare less salty, please read accordingly. — Ed.
I spun around in the cab of the shuttle car as I dumped the last of my load into the feeder and headed back toward the continuous miner at the coal face. As I pulled in behind the miner to get another load, the lights went out, the scrubber shut off, and I heard Turk yelling in the distance.
“Goddamn piece of sh-t. I told those mother f—ers to fix this f—ing control box. Hey! Bentley! Pull that f—ing car up here. I don’t have time for this sh-t. We’re gonna tie off to the bumper and pull this f—ing cable out. I don’t care if the whole f—ing thing goes to sh-t. I’m tired of f—ing with this.”
Turk had run the miner over its own power cable, cutting the electricity to the machine. He blamed a faulty control box for the misstep. Now, with the 20-ton miner sitting on the 1,000 volt cable, Turk wanted me to use my shuttle car to pull the cable free.
I knew this wasn’t a good idea, but I went along with the plan. Turk removed the pull rope from the tail of the miner and hooked it onto the bumper of the shuttle car. The other end was attached to the cable. It was time to pull.
“Hold it wide open. Don’t let up!”
I spun around to the seat that faced in the opposite direction, released the brake, and did just what Turk said. Full speed, I ran hard for 20 feet. Then there was a ripping sound and the car stopped dead in its tracks. My hard hat flew across the deck of the shuttle car. With the motor overloaded, the electrical breaker on my car “knocked,” and there I sat, with my car just as dead as the continous miner.
“Hey Turk, we’re in trouble now. I lost power, the miner has no power, and – “
Randy grabbed my shoulder. “If you’re scared to go balls out on this, I’ll pull it. If not, I wanna see you go as hard as you can.” This was a challenge to my manhood. I had to prove that I wasn’t scared. I pressed the tram pedal as hard as I could and braced for impact.
Before I could finish my sentence, I saw lights coming around the corner. As I screamed “Hey, stop! Stop!” there was another crash, a quick flash of light, and an arc of electricity from the boom of my shuttle car.
Jason had rounded the corner in his shuttle car and didn’t see me in time to brake. Jason’s power cable, pinched between the two cars, parted.
There we sat. Both shuttles and the continuous miner were broken down. The power cable to the miner was now stretched as thin as a garden hose.
“Gah- f–k boys. Y’all just tryin’ to f–k it all up.” Whit the electrician came around the corner on foot, his stutter accentuated by the excitement. His eyes were wide, pupils the size of quarters, and sweat rolled down his forehead.
“Wh-Wh-What the f–k, R-R-R-Randy is gonna have a sh-t fit. What the f–k happened?”
As I explained things to Whit, Jason sat on the tail of his car eating a snack.
Turk pulled out his utility knife and went to work cutting the pull rope that was holding the continuous miner’s electrical cable taut.
BANG! The rope parted and the tension on the cable released with a sound like a shotgun blast. Turk’s laughter filled the entry.
“Goddamn, that mother f–ker was tighter than a banjer string.”
Turk didn’t seem to notice that the whiplash from the cable could have killed a man.
As Whit went to work splicing the shuttle car cable, the crew boss, Randy, arrived. He didn’t speak. He just looked at the ground shaking his head. While he evaluated the situation with Turk, I walked down to the power box with Whit to verify both our cars had power so we could move them out of the way. The plan was to use another piece of equipment, the scoop, to lift the rear of the continuous miner and drag the stuck electrical cable out by hand. Bart traveled to the miner on his scoop and after multiple failed attempts to lift the miner, they decided I should try to pull the cable out with the car again. Just as I was changing seats, Randy grabbed my shoulder. “If you’re scared to go balls out on this, I’ll pull it. If not, I wanna see you go as hard as you can.” This was a challenge to my manhood. I had to prove that I wasn’t scared. I pressed the tram pedal as hard as I could and braced for impact.
There was a deafening blast and a blinding arc of light. As I opened my eyes, my ears were ringing. Whit stood with a piece of the cable in each hand. It had blown apart, as if had been a grenade planted in the splice.
BANG! I heard another sound like a shotgun blast and something that sounded like a bullet flew past my ear. But it wasn’t a bullet, of course. It was the snapped end of the 4-inch diameter electrical cable from the continuous miner. It just missed clipping my right ear. Then as it sprang back, the cable missed the tip of my nose as it wrapped around the post of the canopy on my shuttle car. I could hear Randy and Turk laughing as I sat motionless. Then Turk said, “Well sh-t Bentley. You didn’t get the cable out from under the tracks, but you made Whit’s job a hell of a lot easier. Now he only has to cut one end of the cable before making the splice.”
Just then Whit walked up. “Mu-mu-mu-mother f–kers, y’all have destroyed this cable. It’s gonna be a while getting this one back together. You might as well go eat your dinner and find something to do for the next hour.”
After eating lunch and shoveling the tail piece behind the feeder, Jason and I walked back up the belt entry and over to the continuous miner. Whit was on his knees in six inches of water wrapping the fresh splice with rubber tape.
“Ok guys, it’s all d-d-done. I’m gonna go put the p-p-p-ower back in. You all stay clear of this splice. Anything c-c-c-c-could happen, it’s too damned wet up here.” The entire crew stepped around the corner just a few feet behind the miner waiting on Whit to throw the breaker and send electricity back to the continuous miner. As the lights came on, the continuous miner’s computer reset, and the methane detector went through startup. I saw Ricky smile. His one full tooth and the shard of the one beside of it glistened in the yellow glow from Turk’s cap light.
As Turk powered up the scrubber and began to tram the miner towards the coal face everything went black again. The miner had lost power one more time. RIcky turned and jogged out of the entry and moved toward the power center without saying a word. We all turned and followed suit. As we rounded the corner at the cross cut to the belt entry, RIcky was on his way back. “I need you all to spread out. Whit’s going to put a popper on it and we’re going to find the ground.” (A popper is a very expensive and dangerous tool used by electricians to find grounded cables. It sends an electric charge through the cable and at the area of the grounded electrical wire, you will hear a popping sound. These are formally called a Cable Fault Locator.)
Ricky spoke quickly as he hurried across the cross cut. “You all be quiet, spread out, and don’t touch the damn cable. The last thing I need is one of you idiots getting electrocuted.” We all stood silently with our cap lights off listening for a slight pop like a single kernel of corn in the microwave or the slight flash of a blue green arc from within the cable. The silence in a mine when no equipment running is surreal. You begin to hear your own heartbeat. You hear the weight of the earth above settling on the pillars of coal. You can hear the methane seep out of the coal seam. In total silence you begin to connect with your surroundings, and when you are underground that can be very important. Jason yelled “I found it! Whit, you big burly dumbass. It’s in this fresh splice you just made. Get your ass up here and splice this damn thing better. I need to run some coal before I go home.” Whit returned to the tail of the miner and began working on the cable splice for the second time. Ricky made us spread out and throw rock dust from 50-pound bags along the roof and wall of the mine.
“I got it, I’m just wrapping the jacket it around it and I’ll be finished. One of you all run down there and put the cat head in and reset the breaker for me!”
Jason moved at a fast pace down to the power center. Turk and I walked toward Whit while he wrapped the insulating jacket around the new splice. There was a deafening blast and a blinding arc of light. As I opened my eyes, my ears were ringing. Whit stood with a piece of the cable in each hand. It had blown apart, as if had been a grenade planted in the splice. “Holy sh-t, What the f–k was that?”
“The splice blew up,” Whit said.
He gently laid the cable down and walked away without saying anything more. After a 30-miinute retreat, Whit returned to make another splice. Later in my career, I would learn that he had crossed the leads of the cable, causing it to blow out. The mistake could be fatal. That day, Whit got minor burns and a nasty headache.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.