In the Black: Watching It Fall
In a last effort to wring coal from underground, miners cut away the pillars that keep the roof from collapsing. As the miners retreat, the mountain does the rest.
Part of a series.
A NOTE TO READERS: Coal miners cuss. We’ve toned down 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.
“Mornin’. You’re going to go up to the face today.”
This was very exciting news for me. The working face is where the action is. It’s also where all of the high paying jobs are. Everyone wants to be up at the face cutting coal, bolting top, hauling coal, and earning a good wage.
“Ride on up with the rest of the crew. You can help the scoop man out. They’re pillarin’ right now so you can help load timbers. I’ll tell Mark to put you on the scoop for a while too. We’ll be pullin’ all the way out soon, and you’ll need to know how to run some equipment before we hire you.”
My stomach was in knots. I was nervous and excited. It was like kissing a girl for the first time or the second or maybe even the third. I went out to the man trip before the rest of the crew. I secured my dinner bucket on tight and I crawled into a space at the far back of the man trip. I wanted to make sure I didn’t take another man’s seat.
Mark poked me in the ribs as he walked by. “Today’s your big day kid, time to get in on the action” Mark was a younger guy, at least compared to all of the other supervisors I had met in mining. He was in his early 30s. Always laughing, making jokes, and razzing the other guys. He was a big guy, muscled up. He looked like one of those oiled up guys you see on TV wearing skimpy underwear and modeling on stage. He was a good guy. Always giving me advice and helping me out when he would see me.
The crew of 12 men loaded onto the man trip and roared through the portal and into the mountain. There was no mid-tempo pace like when Rio was driving. Mark was haulin’ ass. I quickly learned to wedge my feet and shoulders against the frame of the rail car. Otherwise, I was going to be a human pinball between the frame of the man trip and the guy next to me.
We arrived at the end of the track, and quickly everyone scrambled onto the ground and began crawling in the 36-inch high entry. Most made their way to small rubber-tired electric carts that would take them to the working face. These carts weren’t very large, not for hauling a crew 1,000 yards. Two people would lie down flat, side by side in what would be considered the driver and passenger areas. The third guy would then lie down across the front of the cart just on the backside of the acceleration and brake pedals.
I had a different ride to the face.
“Keith, take Gary and get one of those scoops. You’ll need a bucket of timbers, a couple hand saws, and some wedges.”
We crawled roughly 100 yards to where the scoop was sitting. The scoop is a very small, low-to-the-ground piece of machinery. It swivels in the center for steering, has a large bucket on the front that is raised and lowered by hydraulic pumps. Hence the name, scoop. It is used to haul supplies, coal, and to scoop up any loose debris in the working face. This scoop was an electric model, powered by a 128 volt DC battery. The scoop is one of the most versatile pieces of equipment in the mine.
Keith crawled into the deck of the scoop, I crawled into the bucket. He drove us through crosscuts and down entry ways to pick up all of the supplies we needed for the day. As we were loading timbers, he warned me about the job we would be doing.
“You ever pillared before?”
“No, I know what it is but I’ve never seen it.”
Pillaring is also called retreat mining. It’s the last effort to squeeze coal from an area before moving on. In pillaring, you back out from a place that has been mined, and you pull out the coal you had left behind in pillars to support the roof.
“Ok, well just be careful. There’s a lot of draw rock and sh– falling up there. They’re taking all of the pillars and letting it fall, but I guess them roof bolts are doing a little too good because a lot of the places ain’t fallin’ which is causin’ the weight to ride back behind where we’re mining.” The mountain was pressing more than planned above our heads and behind us, rather than out in front of us where the pillars were coming out.
“Thanks, I’ll watch out for sure.”
“Now, if you see anyone run, or you see it raining any rock, that means get the f— outta there.”
“I got it man. I’ll stick with you.”
As we arrived to the section/working face, the noise got overwhelming. Not in the way a heavy metal band playing in your living room would, but more like being in Time Square during rush hour. There were people giving directions, warnings, and information by yelling across the noise of the mining machine chewing up coal and spitting it out of the conveyor. There were horns from the bridge unit to notify the workers to move forward, reverse, left, and right. It was organized chaos.
“Come on man. we gotta get these timbers set before they get that first cut punched through.”
I climbed into the bucket next to the supplies, lying as flat as possible so a roof bolt sticking out of the top of the tunnel wouldn’t tear away my flesh. When you’re mining 36 inches of coal, there’s not a lot of room for error. We made it to the Number 7 entry, just 80 feet from where the miner was cutting away the pillar of coal supporting the roof above our heads.
Keith explained what exactly we would be doing.
“Here’s the drawing that MSHA approved for our timbers. You’ll go up to that crosscut and measure out for each of these dots. Then mark the place. You’ll measure from the ground to the roof and we’ll cut the timbers, set them in place, and move on to the next spot. If you start to hear popping and cracking from the ribs or the top, get the f— out. Otherwise let’s get this shit done.” The “ribs” are the walls of the mine.
I crawled up to the cross cut and shined my light into the dark entry in front of me. I expected to look through the darkness to where the miners had been working days before, to see the empty entry way littered with rock and coal. I couldn’t see anything until my light reflected off gray shale just 60 feet in front of me. I looked, squinting my eyes trying to make out what was in front of me. Then I realized what I was looking at. The entire entry way had collapsed. The mountain that was above our heads had caved in, just a stone’s throw away from where I was kneeling. The truth hit hard. We were going to cut away the pillars of coal that support the mountain above our heads — and watch it fall.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky.