Photo by Lance Booth.

Part of a series.

We stacked concrete block after concrete block. Hundreds of them in a single shift. We stacked them into brattices, walls that were eight feet high and 25 feet long that controlled ventilation in the mine.

To get the block to the very top of the brattice, we stood on plastic buckets, broken step ladders, and sometimes scaffolding we built out of broken pallets and busted blocks left over from the night before. Once the block was up, we sealed the wall with a mixture of fiberglass block bond, mine water, and mud to keep air from flowing through.

Brattices are built out of 8-inch solid block, not the kind you’re used to seeing in construction, which have holes in them to make them lighter. Bart and I would rotate back and forth between jobs. One unloaded the pallets of block, lifting mostly with forearms. The other stacked the block high above us, using chest muscles. When our muscles started to ache, we switched. Then we switched again. There were nights we would work for eight hours without stopping. Some nights we would get half-way into the build and draw rock would fall, destroying hours of work.

“Gary, I need you and Bart to go down to the number 2 west belt. At cross cut number 21, we need an air lock built crossing the belt. I’ll have Shorty bring block, b-bond, and some wedges. The top’s a little rough down there, so grab a slate bar and get it all cleaned up before you try to wedge it down tight.”

At cross cut number 21, Bart and I “scaled” the roof and rib, knocking the loose coal and rock to the floor. Then we cleaned the floor with shovels before starting to build the airlock. It ran perpendicular to the number 2 west belt conveyer, and we built it around and over the belt, using a steel beam to hold up the block where it crossed the belt.

Unlike a regular concrete-block wall, brattices aren’t built on a level surface. The concrete block must be shaped to fit, and we did not have a masonry saw or any other specialized tool. The only option was to create a deep groove around the block with an ax, lay a piece of drill steel across the groove, and have your co-worker swing a 10-pound sledge hammer, hoping that the impact would crack the block in the shape you needed.

Six hours into the shift, our clothes were soaked with sweat, our bodies were aching, and our bellies were grumbling. We had one corner of the brattice complete and tightened down. After lunch we could place the man door into the wall and complete the brattice. We took a quick 15-minute break and got back to work.

A foreman's training manual shows elements used to ventilate mines.
An illustration in a foreman’s training manual shows structures used to direct airflow in a room and pillar mine to ensure proper ventilation.

“Hey, man, this thing is starting to bow in the center. It doesn’t look so hot. Come over here and take a look.”

“Bart, I’m going to walk around the pillar and come up from behind the belt to look. Some of these roof bolt plates are turned out like soup bowls.”

The top was settling, and the weight of the roof was pushing down on the six-inch square roof bolt plates with such force it was folding down the edges.

As I walked around to the back side of the brattice I could hear draw rock falling.

“Hey Bart, is everything OK?”

“Yea, I’m just trying to get some of this draw rock down so we can tighten it up before it falls.”

Once I had checked the other side of the brattice, Bart and I contemplated the best option for fixing the bowing wall. Our bodies answered for the both of us. We didn’t have the strength to rebuild the brattice from scratch.

“Gary, take this ax to the other side. I’m going to use this sledge to drive some wedges in between the block. You drive some more in the top and see if we can sturdy it up. We’ll just b-bond the hell out of it when we get it standing up good.”

As I walked back around the pillar, I could hear Bart grunt with each swing of the hammer. I was tired, my body was sore, and I wanted to finish this job so I could go home at the end of the shift. We had stacked block for three, 16-hour days that week, and neither of us wanted to make this day a fourth.

“Hey man, you ready?”

I couldn’t hear Bart’s answer. The noise from the maintenance group and the nearby beltline made it impossible to hear through the brattice. I placed the first cap wedge between the mine roof and the concrete block over the belt line. With one short swing to steady the wedge, I planted my feet like I was standing over home plate back in my days of playing baseball. On the first swing, the block shifted and came into alignment. I planted my feet once more and pulled back with the ax to take another full swing when I saw the steel beam supporting the block as it spanned the belt begin to flex. I moved to my right a couple of steps and inserted a header board and three wedges. I looked down to check the bow in the wall, feeling for instability before driving the next set of wedges. A few light taps to each wedge over the header board and another hard swing to the first wedge. I took one step the right, planted my feet and took a hard swing at the second wedge.

It looked like a stuntman smashing a car through a burning sheet of plywood. Concrete block kicked out from the bottom of the brattice toward my boots. The rest went in the other direction, crashing away from me and toward Bart on the other side.

With the wall down, I could see Bart lying beneath the busted and crumbled concrete block.

“Hey man, you OK? Hey Bart, you OK?”

All I could get from him was a light groan. Flashbacks of the accident with Josh came into my mind. I ran to the working face and called for the chief electrician.

“RONNNNNIE!!!! We need help down here! Bart’s covered up!”

As Ronnie and the other mechanics traveled toward me on their carts, I ran back to Bart and started removing block. As I pulled block from his legs and lower back, Bart began to speak and try to move. Luckily for Bart, Ronnie was a mine emergency technician and knew what to do.

“Gary, don’t move him, and Bart, you stop trying to move. Let’s get this block off of him. Paul is on his way down here right now.”

As we waited for Paul, the crew superintendent, to arrive, Bart began to talk a little and continued trying to move.

“Bart, lay still, you dick. We don’t know what’s wrong with you and can’t risk you going and getting all f*cked up. Are you in a lot of pain? Where are you hurting?”

We got nothing more than groans and a few occasional words: Back. Legs. Head. Hurt.

Paul arrived in 45 minutes. Bart was conscious and saying his lower back was hurting, but it seemed as though none of his injuries were going to be very serious. We still placed him on a backboard and got him outside to the ambulance. In less than a week Bart was back building brattices with me again. But he never worked on the opposite side of the wall from me again.

Gary Bentley is a former coal miner from Letcher County, Kentucky.

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