Photo by Lance Booth.

I was still working on a crew cutting a new slope entrance to the mine. As we cut deeper into the mountain, we went through different strata. When the material changed, our methods for controlling the roof had to change with it.

At the beginning of the project, there wasn’t much overhead because we were cutting at a 20 degree angle. What coverage we did have was sandstone, which was as hard as the face of the mine and structurally sound. We felt safe with six-foot resin-set roof bolts to hold the top in place.

As we got deeper into the mountain, there was more rock overhead pressing down on the roof, and the strata grew softer: a mixture of sandstone and shale with the occasional underground stream. We increased the material in our roof-control plan to a combination of 6-foot resin bolts, 16-foot cable bolts, and steel straps.

Roof falls became part of an ordinary routine. Sometimes they left the roof 20 feet high. Securing the top when it was so far above the floor of the entrance required a special type of roof bolter, one I had never seen. A Fletcher walk-through roof bolter was brought on site to make our job as roof bolters safer and more efficient. We could now enter the roof bolter safely from the back under the already secured roof and use hydraulic lift platforms to raise us safely closer to the roof to install a new support system. This was a safer method but gave us no exit strategy once elevated above the machine. We were on the platforms, and we stayed there until the roof bolts and steel straps were installed.

It was my first day working with Ricky, an experienced miner who had been working in the Virginia operations of Alpha Natural Resources.  Lucky for us, Ricky was a Knott County native and a proud University of Kentucky sports fan. He had taken the job in Kentucky to be closer to home and finish out his last few years as an underground miner before retiring. He had worked as a roof bolter for more than 20 years and was looking forward to taking on a much easier task after completion of the slope.

“Gary, let’s load up two of these steel straps behind our trays,” Ricky said. “We will put up our inside bolts first to keep everything lined up and work our way out. Don’t worry about hitting water or listening for the top to crack. Just feel for what you’re drilling through to report to Charlie, because if it’s gonna fall you ain’t gonna have time to lower your platform and get off here. Best thing to do is just keep drilling and hope we have it secured before the whole place comes crashing down.”

Our first day together on the job and there I was relying on a person I had never met to keep me alive.

I followed Ricky’s instructions and kept my eye on his every move. As we aligned the steel straps on the top of the temporary roof-support system, I noticed the tattoos and scars on his forearms. A faded Harley-Davidson logo looked like a watercolor painting on his left arm. The light coloring, plus the scar that made the eagle a head shy of being whole, gave me the notion that this tattoo had seen some years.

We raised our platforms in sync to balance the cable bolts across our supply trays. Our platforms were tucked tightly against the temporary roof support bar of the roof bolter, leaving Ricky and me just arms’ length from one another.

“Kid, this is one-inch drill steel. It’s not as flexible as your standard roof bolting drill steel, so be easy with the pressure. It’s not going to bend and warp with warning. This sh** will break and explode under too much pressure.”

He handed me a bucket of new drill bits.

“See this scar on my arm?” he asked. “That’s because my partner didn’t listen. He applied too much up pressure and the steel exploded. When I put my arm up to block the shrapnel, I got this scar. He wasn’t as lucky. He took the brunt of the blow and ended up with a shattered forearm.”

Then I was scared. This was a new type of roof bolter for me — lever action, no joystick. I was unsure of the hydraulic system. I started off slow — too slow. The drill bit cut into the sandstone, but without enough up pressure, the steel got off track and the bit spun out of the hole. Rick looked over his shoulder, shaking his head

“Don’t be such a p***y. Drill the damned hole. We don’t have all day.”

It took me longer than I was used to, but after 20 minutes I had learned the controls and the flow of the hydraulics on the machine. I was drilling my third hole while Rick leaned against his supply tray watching. Six feet into the third hole I could see droplets of water making their way down the steel, evaporating on the hot bit before reaching the drill pot. I lowered the drill pot and prepared to add my extension. Then I realized I had gotten my drill steel hung in the rock.

“Yea, kid, notice that water and mud running down your steel? You gotta reverse the rotation and occasionally beat the mud out of your drill bit or you’ll lose every piece of steel you got.”

I reversed the direction of drilling, extracted the steel, and began drilling deeper. The water flow increased. It was no longer evaporating. It was splashing onto the controls and against my face. I reversed the steel multiple times, removing it to clean out the drill bit. My arms were soaked from the water streaming out of the hole. I cursed under my breath as I worked to finish the 16’ hole to install the cable bolt. Over an hour later I had finished my row of roof bolts. I lowered my platform and positioned myself at the operator controls. All of my clothes were wet, and I was freezing.

“Kid, you back up and I’ll pull the cable out of the way. Let’s set this up under the intake duct so Cap can get the miner back down here. I’ll go get the mucker and give you a ride out to get the other. Chock those wheels and set the stab jacks just to be safe.”

Walking up the slope I could hear the sandstone popping and breaking. It had become a normal sound when the equipment was not running and the inside of the slope was quiet. I looked up to see the half-inchsteel plates on the roof bolts had folded at the corners and the steel straps were sagging under the weight of the rock above. With every step, I waited on the rush of air, my ears to pop, and sound of 20 ton of rock falling behind me. I crested the top of the slope and stepped out into the sunshine and snow.

“Cap, you and Charlie might wanna watch that top,” I said. “We hit a mud streak and some water around 6 feet. It’s still poppin’ and crackin’, everythings takin’ weight. I’m gonna fuel up the mucker and I’ll be down there to get a load in just a second.”

To be continued Monday, December 5, 2016.

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

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