Photo by Lance Booth.

Previously, in parts one and two: A large roof fall has set back the schedule for completing a new entry to the mine. Gary and his partner scramble to install temporary supports that will allow mine inspectors to create a new plan to control the roof and protect miners from collapse.

After four hours of hard work and frustration, we had the temporary roof support in place and were ready for the mine inspectors to discuss a permanent roof control plan.

I was battling a migraine, most likely from the stress. My clothes were drenched. The water, which threatened to separate the layers of rock and other material from the roof, had only gotten worse. We hit another stream – the main branch, it turned out – another eight feet up. That meant adding 16-foot cable bolts to each row of standard roof support to keep the water from breaking rock loose again. And we had to drill beyond the stream to hit rock that would hold the supports in place.

Finally, the time came when I could take a break. Walking out of the slope, I passed Charlie, the foreman, and four other men. They turned out to be the mine engineer and government inspectors we had been expecting. While they were underground, I spent the next hour changing clothes and trying to warm up. I ate a room-temperature chili from the can and made my way across the muddy coal yard with no socks in wet boots and diesel drenched coveralls. I left my winter coat hanging in the changing room in hopes that it would dry out by the next morning.

When I got back to my roof bolter to do my daily maintenance, I saw Charlie and the other men discussing a new and improved roof control plan. Charlie seemed upset. He pointed to our work as he told the inspectors about our efforts. I cleaned out my dust box, changed my filter, and listened to Charlie yell.

“God damn, what are you trying to do, break us? If we do all of what you’re asking, we’re going to be months behind our projected completion and millions of dollars in the hole. Do you all want to put every man here out of a job?”

This wasn’t good news. I remained silent. There was no way in hell I was putting myself into that conversation. I had put up a majority of the bolts supporting the roof and knew what the inspectors would find in every test hole from the top of the slope all the way to the face of the production area. It was tricky stuff. I had watched rock scale from the rib (what we call the wall of the entry) and roof. Some of it fell just feet from my co-workers and me. I wanted us to be safe, but I also wanted to have a job come tomorrow. If keeping my job meant risking my life, so be it. I had nothing else to turn to in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. I wasn’t going to let fear keep me from driving my brand-new SUV or cruising through the mountains on the motorcycle I had purchased that summer. I’d be damned if I would say anything to jeopardize the income I was earning. This job was going to fund my band’s next tour and, I hoped, put me on the road as a musician. So I kept my mouth shut, refilled the hydraulic tank on the roof bolter, and stayed busy until it was time to go home.

After I changed clothes at the end of the shift, Charlie asked the crew to come to his office to discuss the new roof control plan that had been put in place by inspectors from the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Kentucky State Department of Mines and Minerals, along with the company’s mine engineers.

“This is going to cost a fortune and it’s not gonna be easy finishing up the slope,” Charlie said. “But if we want to get to the #9 seam and get into production, this is what we’re gonna have to do.”

Then he described the extra roof control measures it was going to take to get us back to cutting the new slope into the mine. It was going to involve putting more support under the roof, erecting steel arches, and special measures to secure the ribs, or walls, and keep them from collapsing into the entry.

“They want wire mesh hung on the ribs all the way down the slope to prevent any rib rolls. We are going to have to start just before the roof fall and install tension bolts from rib to rib, wire mesh on the roof, and install steel archways until we hit more reliable top. Evening shift will start hanging wire mesh and tension bolts tonight, but we won’t have the steel arches until morning. We will start installing those and cribbing the top first thing when they arrive. We can’t cut anymore until we have met these demands.”

That meant the entry was getting no farther into the mountain until we had completely redone the roof control plan – from the entrance to the working face of the slope.

“Go get some rest now. We’re gonna be doing some brute work in the morning.”

The next day my next shift began with installing tension bolts from rib to rib. I had to learn to drill horizontally into the rib just below the roof of the mine, where there was little room to operate the equipment. Then I installed a cable bolt on each side and connected them with a clamp which ran from rib to rib. By tightening the clamp with a 75-pound tool lifted over my head, the materials created a beam that held the strata in place.

After lunch we began installing steel archways. The archways had steel legs, three pieces of steel I-beam that created the arch, and ½-half-inch steel slats that were stacked and placed between each row of beams to create a solid canopy beneath the roof. Once this job was complete, we had to pump a concrete mixture onto the canopy. Once that dried, we stacked fiber crib blocks (a fiber formed 12×36 inch block — think of a 50-pound Jenga block) that could be wedged tight between the new steel canopy and the roof of the mine.

Charlie was right. This was hard, physical labor that seemed to continue forever. I stacked crib after crib, climbed across steel archways to bolt them together, my arms became weak after just two shifts. My back ached through the evening and night. There was no end in sight.

Three weeks later, after continuous labor by all our crews, the job was complete. Only then could we get back to work on our original task – cutting rock to make a new entrance to the mine.

Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from eastern Kentucky.

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