Photo by Lance Booth.

Part two

Last week’s “In the Black” ended with Gary exiting the slope entry after working with Rick to secure the roof with a Fletcher walk-through roof bolter. It was hard work and, it turns out, useless, as well.

Traveling across the coal yard I could see Ricky, Cap, Charlie, and Chris standing at the top of the slope. Ricky’s diesel mucker was sitting at the gob pit and the engine was shut off. I stepped out of my mucker and walked over. I thought the crew was loading supplies or discussing the next cut. I yelled to the crew as I walked up.

“We gonna get another cut or stand around with our d***s in our hands?”

Charlie looked back at me and I could see in his eyes that this was not a time to be heckling the crew. Charlie replied in a solemn voice

“Not funny right now. We just had a roof fall. Any of us could have been killed in there. It looks like that mud and water you all hit was separating the #8 seam and the sandstone we were cutting. We’re gonna have to call in MSHA and get some engineers in here to make a call on moving forward. For now, Cap’s gonna take the miner down and we’ll start loading out what fell.”

Loading out a roof fall is a slow process, not to mention dangerous. In this case, things were made even more dangerous because the roof supports directly behind the fall, which we had to rely on to keep us alive, had been taking weight for weeks. We were all concerned that the entire slope could fall at any moment. I say “we,” but, it was everyone on the crew except Cap. He didn’t seem bothered by the circumstances and didn’t see any danger in continuing his work.

We walked down the slope entrance and our lights reflected off of the steel straps, water, and rock dust that littered the edge of the roof fall. I stopped at the last row of remaining roof supports and looked up. I could see the 20 feet of strata that had fallen just minutes after Ricky and I had left the slope. There was a combination of sandstone, shale, mud, and coal. Above the massive boulders in front of me, I could see pockets of coal, loose draw rock, and water dripping from what was now the new mine roof. I was in awe of what was in front of me. I was clueless on where to go from here, so I had to ask the most senior and most experienced man on the crew, Cap.

“What the hell are we supposed to do with this, Cap?”

“I guess we’re gonna chew it up and sh** it out. Hell, what do ya think? We gotta clean it up and make it all pretty before the feds get in here and try to shut us down. We’ll build a ramp for the miner out of this sh** on the ground. I’ll smooth out the roof to make it easy to bolt. You’ll use the same ramp as the miner, and then when they tell us what their new roof control demands are, we will go from there.”

The entire crew stayed underground with Cap Wedge while he used the continuous miner to clean up the fallen debris and create a platform to work off of for the much higher mine roof. We changed bits on the miner as the sandstone destroyed the carbide tips. We moved the miner cable and water line so Cap could focus on his work. We took turns checking the roof supports behind us to makes sure that the strata over our heads was not cracking and trying to fall. Hours later and after we had run through thousands of dollars in miner bits, the roof fall was non-existent. There was a nicely setup platform leading 20 feet out into unsecured territory where Ricky and I would attempt to secure the roof once more.

As we drove the diesel muckers over the new pile of debris to pack in the rock, coal, and shale to support the smaller, narrower tires of the roof bolter, the foreman, Charlie, came down the slope to give us our orders.

“We got engineers and inspectors on their way down here. I figure it will take an hour or two for them to get on site. You all try to get some steel straps put up to support this brow (an overhang on the roof of a mine) hanging here. I don’t care how you get it done but get it done and be safe. The last thing we need is one of you getting hurt. We need to bring our row of bolts together so I want a row of bolts every 3 feet and a row of cable bolts every 6 feet. I’ll be at the top of the slope if you need anything. Cap, you stay down here and hand them supplies. Help out however you can. We need to get this looking as good as we can.”

Ricky and I set the roof bolter up at the edge of the last row of bolts still supporting the mine roof. Just ahead was the brow, the section between the last row of roof bolts that were still holding and the new 20-foot-high ceiling over the cave in. We would try to wrap steel straps under the lip of the brow and up toward the 20-foot ceiling, as if we were using duct tape to secure a piece of crown molding to a wall. But the straps were only 12 feet long. There was no way they were going to reach all the way to the 20-foot-high ceiling.

YouTube video

Gary Bentley talks to the Kentucky Historical Society about the inspiration for his column, “In the Black.”

That didn’t stop Ricky. The trick, besides having straps that were too short to do the job, is that we couldn’t work under the unsupported roof ahead of us. That meant we would have to use a T-bar to bend the straps upward to the high roof and long steel bits to drill holes for the bolts.

“It’s gonna be slow and aggravating as hell, but it’s our only choice,” Ricky said.

Then he explained how to lengthen the steel strap using a cable bolt to secure it to another piece of strap.

“We just need something to support the strap and any draw rock that might fall onto it. We’ll put the real roof support up once we get these straps installed.”

I turned my head and twisted my body to look from underneath the canopy. I used a 10 foot piece of starter steel Cap had made for me to line up the hole in the strap and begin drilling. It was a tedious task because I could not hold the drill steel steady with my hand. My head was out in the open, under unsupported roof. I watched the steel go through the hole and I could feel pressure apply to the drill pot. I slowly began drilling and turned my face away from the roof to avoid any small rock or debris from falling into my eye or a larger rock breaking my nose.

I spent more than two hours trying to drill and support those four straps. I broke more than five pieces of drill steel, and hung four roof bolts from the top that would have to be cut out later. Ricky’s side of the job was smooth and tidy. My side looked like a disaster. The straps were twisted and bent.

It was the best I could do, and it was not good enough.

To be continued

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

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