The strobe of the blue light reflected off the mountainside as I drove west on Highway 80 from Hindman toward Soft Shell, Kentucky. I gently pulled on the lever to signal that I was turning into the gravel parking lot situated just a few hundred feet off the shoulder of the highway. As I turned into the parking lot and the gravel ricocheted off the bottom of my truck, I saw the Kentucky state trooper and the Knott County sheriff’s deputy standing beside the guard shack.
“Sir, we’re sorry but we can’t let allow anyone to proceed beyond the gate.”
“Well, what’s going on? They called me Friday and told me to come into work tonight.”
“We can’t discuss that with you at this time. You need to call your immediate supervisor or contact Human Resources.”
As I put the truck in reverse, my mind raced with the possibilities of what could have happened to prevent anyone from entering company property. Was there a mine fire? Was there a roof fall and people were trapped? Was there a drug bust? I needed information, and I knew exactly where to go to get it: the Exxon station with the Arby’s in the back. If there was ever a place to find coal miners traveling to and from work, that was the place. As I pulled up to the Exxon, I could already see it was packed. All of the gas pumps were blocked, and both the left and right sides of the parking lot were full. I made my way around the back of the building and I spotted K.J. standing beside his sport bike talking with some men in mining uniforms that I didn’t recognize. I stopped and rolled down my window.
“Hey looky there, it’s the movie star! Hey, Bentley, bet you won’t be directin’ no films anytime soon will ya?”
“Ahhh, f*** you, K.J. You got any idea what’s going on up at the mine?”
“It blew the hell up, haven’t you heard?”
“Nah man, I just drove up there to work tonight and the police wouldn’t let me in.”
“Oh yea, who knows what’s going on? I just got told by Squirrel that there was an explosion this morning.” The men were all working “out-by,” or outside the mining sections. “Then, all of a sudden, their ears popped, and the air came traveling down the entry way like someone had turned on a giant fan. He said they couldn’t see sh** because of the dust being all stirred up, so they got the hell out of there. I guess some time later on they let them know there was an explosion, and they evacuated the area and called in the Mine Rescue Team.”
On the drive home all I could think about was the fact that I could have been working in the mine during this explosion. Everyone there at that time was lucky to avoid injury or death. The event could have been tragic and life-altering. We all knew that the mine released over 1 million cubic feet of methane per day. We all knew this was a risky mine, but we were working for one of the largest coal corporations in the world. We thought they would know how to keep the danger of methane under control, and they did. However, we’re all humans and mistakes happen.
The next morning was actually very nice for me. I slept in and had plans to ride my ATV with Bart and end the evening with a cookout at his place. As I sat on my sofa eating cereal at 11 a.m., the phone rang.
“Hey Gary, this is Craig. We’re trying to reach all of the employees this morning to talk about the situation at the mine. We know there are a lot of rumors going around, and we want our employees to have the facts. At some point Sunday during the day shift hours, one of the seals on the west failed.”
Seals are extra-strong brattices that are supposed to block air from moving from old, abandoned sections of the mine into sections where men are working. The seals keep methane out of the working section. They are supposed to be impenetrable, fireproof, and explosion-proof. But this one had failed. When it did, Craig said, the accumulated methane ignited, blowing out some more nearby seals – seals that were also supposed to be airtight, fireproof, and explosion-proof.
“We are currently drilling into those works from the surface. We are going to pump nitrogen and foam into the mine to deplete any opportunity for fires and then bring in external fans to pull the methane out of the area while the seals are being rebuilt. We are anticipating a one- to two-week period before anyone returns to work, but we will call and notify you of any updates. Once again, we are glad to have you back and hopefully we will be back on track very soon.”
As I hung up the phone there was a weight lifted from my shoulders. My decision to leave Consol and go to work for Enterprise had been bothering me from the moment Craig had called me back to work. Sitting on my couch after hearing that there had been an explosion, a set of seals had blown out, and they were bringing in outside contractors to control the situation, made the decision to move on to a new work place much easier.
“In the Black” is published every Monday. Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from east Kentucky.