Sign up for our newsletter
Part of a series.
The light of the LCD screen was blinding me as I sat looking into the portal of the mine. I had purchased a new digital camera and I immediately wanted footage to show my friends and family what it was like to work underground. So I sat on my hip with my upper body hanging outside of the slope car. I watched through the screen of my camera as the cable lowered us deep into the mountain and using my peripheral vision to make sure no one else on the car noticed my camera.
As for Bart and me, it was going to be another long night of building brattices, installing 6-inch water line, and moving belt structure. Bart was in on my secret documentary project, though. He knew we might slack off a little tonight in order to get some good photos and videos for the DVD I was planning to make. Bart wanted to be able to show his wife and kids what it was like working underground, as well.
I delayed leaving the bottom of the slope by taking my time unloading tools and packing them to the man trip. I was waiting for the others to leave so I could take photos and video. Once we were alone, I shot photos from the slope belt drive looking up the slope at the light of the 20×40-foot entry. It was no larger than they eye of a needle in the photo. I took photos of the airlock doors and benches where K.J. had been stripped, tied up, and left to his own misery and thoughts. Then Bart drove us along the track as I took photos and shot video clips of us roaring down the rails with dust in our eyes. As we arrived at the section I immediately began taking photos of the roof bolt supplies, the scoop, and of course the roof bolts, which were hanging loose due to the rock that had broken from around them. I looked forward to telling my friends, “We call these meat hooks because when you crawl under one hanging down loose and it hits your back, it’s just like a damn meat hook in a slaughter house.”
As we made our way up to the working section I stretched my body across the batteries of the scoop, getting action shots of Bart tramming the scoop up the entry with a full load of block, wedges, and header boards. As we made our way closer to the section, I stashed the camera into the bottom of my lunch box, fearing Paul would catch me taking photos. I didn’t know exactly what kind of trouble I would be in, but knowing I was breaking company policy, along with state and federal law, was enough to keep me on my toes.
“Hey Gary, you think you could make me a couple copies of the DVD and pictures? I’d like to keep one and give one to my parents too.”
“Yea, no problem at all. Got any music request you want in there?”
“That new Sara Evans song Coalmine. I want that one in there. My wife loves that song.”
Bart and I worked together for the next four hours stacking block, wedging them tight between the roof and floor, while the sweat fell from our faces into the dust. It was our routine to stop for lunch after getting all of the block cut, stacked, and wedged. We would mix and spread the block bond after eating. You don’t want to touch your food after you’ve been mixing a fiberglass block bond with mine water. We all knew mine water was just a combination of oil, piss, and runoff that would be pumped outside, cycled through a tank filled with dial dish soap, and pumped right back in. Don’t think we were getting the clean Dial dish soap water being pumped back into the mine. Nope, we would pack buckets of water from the nearest sump hole to mix the block bond.
“Hey Bart, you think Ronnie and those guys would let me take some pictures of the miner and pinner?”
“I dunno, couldn’t hurt to ask ‘em. Didn’t you give Ronnie those lortabs the other day when he had that tooth pulled?”
“Yea, I guess he does owe me one. Wanna go up to the face after you finish that soup?”
As we got closer to the face the light from the shuttle cars could be seen through the curtain hanging across the travel entry. As we neared the curtain I could hear Ronnie and Travis laughing.
“Hahahah you mother**cker! I tell you what, if you can get that f*ckin’ nut off there without an impact gun I’ll buy you a beer down at the Kwik Six in the mornin’.”
“Hey Ronnie, I got a question for ya. You care if I take some pictures of the miner and pinner?”
“I don’t mind just don’t take no f*ckin’ pictures of me. If anyone ask I don’t know sh*t about these pictures either. After that guy got killed trying to record that video of them pillarin’ they don’t play around about people bringing cameras into the mines no more”
“Alright, you got my word. I just want to show my family what it’s like down here.”
I walked around the working face taking photos and few short videos of all of the equipment. Bart sat in the deck of the shuttle car so I could take his photo. I climbed onto the head of the miner to get mine, and then we walked back to finish plastering our brattice. On the ride out I took photos of the belt line as the day shift began to produce coal and the belts were loaded. I shot a quick video riding out of the slope and drove home for the weekend off.
I spent my Friday evening editing the photos and video clips into a six-minute video. This was just about the time that YouTube was becoming very popular, so I immediately uploaded the video to my account and began sharing it with friends and family through email and social media. I burned several DVDs for Bart’s family and mine. Everyone seemed fascinated by the images I had captured, and Bart said his family was thrilled to see what it was like in an underground mine.
Two weeks later on a Friday morning, I had just taken a shower after my shift and laid down for sleep when my phone rang.
“Is Gary Bentley there? Yes, Gary, this is Craig with Consol of Knott County. Is there any chance you could come into the office today? I just wanted to talk to you about something that has come up. If you could, come in as soon as possible.”
I was very excited. I knew there were some new opportunities coming up at the mine. I had requested that with the first opportunity I wanted to become a MET and join the mine rescue team. I knew that is what Craig wanted to talk to me about. I put on a nice pair of jeans and a button up dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to my elbows. I wanted to look presentable but casual. As I drove to the mine office, there were a lot of thoughts running through my mind. Mostly daydreaming about what kind of new job offer I was about to receive and what sort of pay would come with it. I could help my mom buy that new car she wanted or take her and my little sister on an expensive summer vacation. But when I walked through the doors to the office, Craig the Human Resources Director and Schomo, the mine superintendent, were waiting on me in the lobby.
“Gary, we have someone here who wants to talk to you. Mr. Johnston is the operations manager for Consol Energy.”
I stood quietly. I didn’t know why Mr. Johnston wanted to talk to me, but the tone of Schomo’s voiced suggested I was not there for a promotion.
The man stood from behind the desk, stretched his hand out, and said, “Good morning, son. Thanks for coming in on such short notice.”
“Anytime sir. It was my pleasure.”
“Well, I’m going to get right to the point here. Do you know anything about making movies or videos?”
“I guess, a little bit.”
“Well do you know about a video of the slope mine here in Knott County?”
“I don’t think so, I’m not sure what you’re asking me.”
“Are you saying that you didn’t take those photos of Bart and that you didn’t make the video compilation that our CEO found on YouTube and then sent to me via email and told me to remove immediately?”
“I did take some photos and make a video on YouTube. It was only for my family and friends that don’t know anything about coal mining. I just wanted to show them what it was like working underground.”
“You tell them if they want to know what it’s like underground that we’re hiring every day! Now, I want to know that I have your word, that you will go home and you will remove that video from the internet immediately. I also want to know that you will destroy any copies you have made of that video.”
I’m sure he could sense the fear coming from my chest as I nervously rattled off the words, “Yes, yes sir.”
“That’s all I got. Craig and Schomo can take you back to their office and do the rest.”
I was terrified. I was going to be fired. I had ruined my opportunity with the largest coal company in the world over a six-minute video on the internet. I followed Schomo and Craig down the narrow hallway to the human resources office. All three of us were silent. You could listen to our miner’s boots thud heavily against the hardwood floors of the hallway. Except for Craig, his loafers were as quiet as he was.
“Bentley, you sit down right here.” Schomo pointed to a single chair on the backside of a small table. He and Craig sat on the other side. If you were looking through a peephole in the door, it would have looked just like a police interrogation.
“Now kid, you really f*cked up here. I ain’t gotta tell you that. When you get a target on your back from corporate, well you might as well kiss your ass goodbye. At least that’s what I always thought. Craig here’s got a bit of a different offer. I just want to let you know how f*cking stupid you are for endangering the lives of every man in that mine. You took an unapproved electronic device beyond the last open crosscut and then were dumb enough to put it on the internet for everyone to see. I ain’t got much else to say, Craig will give you the details.”
I sat silently. I was taking the verbal abuse because I deserved it. Did I think that my digital camera would cause an explosion? No. I mean, if the guys lighting up their torches before taking a gas check didn’t kill us, there ain’t no way in hell my little digital camera was going to hurt anyone.
“Gary, you’re a good employee. We’ve got nothing but good reports on you. You come to work every day, on time, and you put in a hard day’s work. What you have to realize is that you broke state and federal law. You also broke company policy. Why would you do something so detrimental to the company? Are you not happy here?”
“I’m very happy here. I love my job. I didn’t mean any harm. I really just wanted to show my friends and family what it was like in an underground mine.”
“Well son, you did that. You also have put yourself at risk of losing your job. We talked this morning, and we have decided that we’re going to suspend you from one week of work beginning now with the possibility of termination. We will call you when we have made our decision. Do you have any questions for me?”
I walked out of the office. I was scared, I was embarrassed, and, most importantly, I needed to get in touch with Bart before they did.
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from eastern Kentucky.