Photo by Lance Booth.

After informing the mine manager of my interest in becoming a certified mine foreman, I was quickly transferred back to the #8 Enterprise Mine to be a roof bolter on day shift so I could acquire my electrical certification card and study for my mine foreman exam. My past supervisor Aaron was once again my section boss. Other than my old friend Lonnie, who I’d known since mining orientation, the rest of the crew was made up of new employees I had yet to meet. Over the course of a few weeks we spent a lot of time together, and I quickly got to know everyone. We worked well together.

The #8 mine had been put on the back burner and almost forgotten about by management after the opening of the #9 slope mine. They were running skeleton crews – the bare minimum it takes to produce coal. That meant the roles of each shift had changed. The production crew, which was supposed to focus on running coal, had to stop to advance the belt line when necessary because the third-shift crew no longer had the manpower to maintain the equipment and handle their other customary tasks.

We had been mining for a few hours. While the miner advanced with each cut, the shuttle cars eventually lost reach with their electrical cable, which powered the cars. We worked hard to advance the anchors for each car, and pulled up all of the slack in the cable powering the continuous miner. Despite our efforts, at 11 a.m., Tracy cut the last 20 feet in the belt heading. We had reached the limit. We would be forced to advance the power center and belt line if we wanted to mine any more coal.

While Brandon and I bolted the roof of the last cut, the rest of the crew moved equipment, power cables, and prepared for the belt and power move. If Brandon and I were lucky, the crew would get the electrical cables for the miner and feeder moved before we finished. Of course, luck was never on the side of a roof bolter. They saved the heaviest cables were for last, when the most help was available. We helped finish moving the last of the cables and loaded everything into the scoop bucket so we could advance.

Tracy was unconscious. His face was bright red and covered in blood. Lonnie was pressing mechanic rags around Tracy’s throat. The rags had turned dark maroon.

We tied the power center to the bucket of the scoop and began advancing the power center. Lonnie guided the scoop operator through the #7 power entry while the rest of us pulled high voltage cable from the sled and hung it tight against the roof of the mine. This is very physical work and demands a lot of every muscle in the body. We crawled in a 36-inch coal seam hoisting heavy cable overhead and hooking a cable hanger into the roof bolt above. You had to time the lift with the person pulling cable from the sled. If the timing was off, the tension could pull down the cable, meaning we had to start over and rehang it. On the other hand, if there was too much slack, workers had to pull the cable by hand while advancing and hanging it. No matter how we went about this part of the power advancement, it is hard work and no one enjoyed it. Normally, the production crew wouldn’t be worrying about this kind of work.

After we advanced the power station, we had to advance the belt line, which carried the freshly cut coal to the surface, a journey that could cover several miles. To advance the belt, we had to pull slack into the belt so it could be tied off and separated at a belt splice. Then we would add more belt at the splice to lengthen the run and advance the tail piece, which is where the shuttle cars placed coal onto the belt. Normally, this is a pretty simple task. You connect clamps to the belt, use them to hold the belt tight with the help of chains tied to roof bolt plates. With the belt tied off, we could release the take-up in the head drive, which powered the belt. That gave us enough slack to separate the belt at the splice and add more belt line. Once we had lengthened the belt, we could advance it.

This time around, we were unfortunate souls. The head drive did not have a take up installed. That meant we had to use the scoop to move the tail piece to release tension on the belt so we could add more belt at a splice. After multiple attempts, there was not enough clearance between the tailpiece and the belt structure to add the slack we needed. We had to regroup and make a new strategy. Aaron, our foreman, was helping our electrician set up the power center and getting the section ready while the rest of the crew tried to lay out belt structure and prepare to advance the belt. Tracy, our continuous miner operator, had the idea to tie steel cable around the belt, attach it to the scoop, and pull slack from the head drive. We trusted his experience. I had seen this done before, so I had no doubts it would work. We re-anchored the tailpiece and moved the scoop to the travel side of the belt line. After tying the steel cable and connecting the scoop, we motioned for the operator to begin pulling slowly. The belt was under a lot of pressure. The cable tightened, popped, and the belt slowly began to stretch and move. Then the steel cable started to stretch under the pressure. I called out to the crew: “Everyone, get out of the way. If that cable breaks, you’ve got 150 feet of sh** coming your way.”

I crawled around the corner just enough to the keep my eyes on the operator. I heard a snap when the cable broke.

At first this seemed like another routine mechanical failure. Then I heard Lonnie scream for help.

I duck walked – more of a duck run, actually – to see what had happened. Thor was doing the same, traveling toward the power center. Lonnie was kneeling over Tracy’s body. The steel cable was in frays all around them. Tracy was unconscious. His face was bright red and covered in blood. Lonnie was pressing mechanic rags around Tracy’s throat. The rags had turned dark maroon. I panicked. I started to sprint toward the section to get the MEDkit and call for help. But sprinting isn’t the best move in a 36-inch seam. The roof bolt plates tore chunks of flesh from my back, but I would not notice the pain until much later in the day.

When I made it to the power center, the kit was gone. Aaron, Thor, and Dempsey were gone as well. I called out on the mine phone. Arvil informed me that they had called an ambulance and other first responders were on their way underground.

With Tracy loaded, the mantrip disappeared into the travelway. My only thought was that I had just watched my friend die.

I returned to Tracy. Aaron and the rest of the crew were around him. Aaron had Tracy’s head in his lap, Tracy’s blood soaking into his shirt. Thor was sliding the backboard under Tracy’s limp body as Lonnie and Dempsey held the rest of our crew at distance. “Give them room. They’re going to need help lifting him over the belt line to get him on the mantrip. But for right now give them room to stabilize him and to apply pressure to the bleeding.” When Dempsey finished his sentence, he took three steps and threw up at the corner of the brattice.

We loaded Tracy onto the mantrip. There seemed to be a steady flow of blood coming from under his chin. No amount of pressure could stop it. With Tracy loaded, the mantrip disappeared into the travelway. My only thought was that I had just watched my friend die.

There were other ways we could have tried to get slack into the belt. Why didn’t I think of something different? If I couldn’t prevent an accident like this, how could I ever be a foreman?

Aaron, Lonnie, and Thor all rode out on a separate mantrip to clean up and wash the blood of a fellow miner off their hands. The rest of us went back to work  to plan a new way to get the belt move completed.

In a few hours, we had removed enough structure to push the tail piece forward, add additional belt at the splice, and complete the advancement. Our shift ended. We were silent as we rode outside.

There was good news. Tracy would live. He had lost a lot of blood and was in intensive care. But he was going to live.

That’s what mattered. It was all about survival.

Gary Bentley is a native of Eastern Kentucky who worked underground for 12 years mining coal. He currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky. Gary said he shares his stories to educate people about the realities of contemporary coal mining and Appalachia.

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