Photo by Lance Booth.

Cap Wedge, with years of experience cutting slope entries, was having a tough time. We were trying to get back on track cutting a new entry after a roof fall had stalled our work.

Cap Wedge worked with the continuous miner to carefully cut the strata between the roof and the No. 8 coal seam at just the correct angle to prevent the strata from falling. When the roof was cut too close to the coal seam, the strata wouldn’t hold, and there wasn’t good rock for us to secure the roof with bolts.

Cap’s attempts were futile, cutting only enough depth for a single row of roof bolts. Ricky and I would use the steel straps to connect the thin strata beneath the coal seam to the sturdier rock above the seam. The straps would fail and the strata we were attempting to hold would fall. Cap Wedge was then forced to back up and cut down the newly exposed portion of No. 8 coal seam.  Then we had to rebolt the roof, often extending more than 20 feet above the floor of the slope. We followed up by installing more steel wire and steel arches.

This process continued for weeks. We moved deeper into the slope hoping to find solid strata that would hold beneath the No. 8 seam.

While we cut deeper into the slope, the strata began to settle on the steel arches we had installed to keep the entry open. Over the weeks, we watched the steel flex under the weight of the mountain above us. The steel arches had bent down until they were as straight as beams.

Finally, we secured a small four-foot slope of strata beneath the No. 8 seam. That toehold got thicker as we mined deeper. We hoped our roof-bolt plan, along with the extra shale and rock now above our heads, would create the support needed to get us at normal operating conditions again.

Cap Wedge worked slowly cutting another four foot slope from our last row of bolts to give us a total of eight feet of coverage between us and the coal seam. Ricky and I added more straps, wire mesh, and cable bolts to try to support the new coverage. By the time we were finished, the ceiling was covered with steel straps, wire mesh, and what looked like a collection of steel push pins in a sandstone pillow. We couldn’t even see the rock in the roof.

Cap Wedge tapered the angle of the roof to match the floor of the slope, hoping to put us back on track. Cap Wedge made a six foot cut this time, leaving Ricky and me to put up two rows of bolts and a row of cable bolts.

I moved the roof bolter under the arches and looked at the arch’s sagging steel. I didn’t know how much weight was required to stress steel, but I was sure that if the bolts that held the arches together gave way, I wouldn’t be worrying about much. There would be nothing left of me to worry.

We installed our first row of bolts, hanging wire mesh and steel straps to cover the rock above us. When we moved forward to install the next row of bolts, Ricky gave me some advice.

“If you hear the top popping or cracking, if you see it raining draw rock, or if you see me run, do not hesitate. Jump off of your platform and run like hell to get under those arches. You won’t have time to lower your platform or to think about your escape. If this sh** decides to come crashing down, we aren’t going to get much of a warning and, as you can see by the arches behind us, this temporary support on the front of the pinner ain’t gonna hold that much weight to save us.”

We drilled the second row of bolts and I thought about nothing more than what Ricky had said. It had been a long time since fear had taken over my body and mind while underground. I thought back to the accident with Josh, him lying there under a piece of rock, never able to work again, and all I knew is that he was screwed up for life. I didn’t want to be in his position, but I knew that I couldn’t turn my back on this job. I couldn’t allow the fear and risk stop me from being a miner. That was just part of the job. Miners have been dealing with it since the industry picked up in the early 1900’s. You pushed fear aside, you forgot about it, and you did your job.

That’s what I thought I was doing. But with every sound I looked at Ricky. Each time my platform swayed under the pressure of my drill, I adjusted my feet for a quicker leap to the walking platform below. My fear was slowing me down and I didn’t realize it. I felt Ricky swing his platform to the inside as I was swinging out to put up my second bolt. I instinctively jumped from my platform to the walking deck below. My deck was four feet to the left and five feet above the walking deck. When I leaped my leg grazed a steel post. It all happened so fast I didn’t notice the blood streaming down my thigh. I ran toward the back of the roof bolter, stepping off the deck onto the floor of the mine. I sprinted under the arches. When I turned around, I saw Ricky still at work, his mouth moving. He was yelling, but I couldn’t hear him. My adrenaline immediately subsided into embarrassment. Ricky was not only yelling at me in anger, but in disappointment.

“Where the hell you going? You so scared you couldn’t even get those bolts up. Then you jump off here ‘bout killing yourself. You are going to have to toughen up. You can’t just jump off here and run when there ain’t nothing happening. That sh** was solid man. Now you’ve done ripped your pants leg and got blood on the deck. Climb your ass back up there and finish putting them bolts up so we can get the next row.”

The embarrassment hid the pain of my injury. I didn’t look at the cut. I climbed back onto the platform of the roof bolter and finished installing my row of bolts. We moved forward, installed the next row, then backed up to install the cable bolts. Ricky was right; the top was just as solid as any other top I had bolted. The cable bolts even bonded into the solid strata above the No. 8 coal seam.

I had let fear get the best of me. I learned that day coal mining was a lot like motocross, skateboarding, or any other activity that requires you to put yourself at risk. You have to push fear back, completely ignore what can go wrong, and commit to the act. You have to focus on the right thing to do and do it. No hesitation, no last minute bailout, you have to go BALLS OUT! It was a lesson I learned the hard way and didn’t want to forget. So I had the words put on a plate and hung it on the front bumper of my Jeep.

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

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