Photo by Lance Booth.

On my first day with a new section and crew, I was nervous. I was young, and the men I worked with intimidated me. But I relaxed when I recognized one of the faces climbing into the slope car with me.

It was Josh from youth group.

Josh and I had grown up together in the Millstone Missionary Baptist Church. We attended different schools, lived in different towns, but the youth group on Sunday afternoons connected us. We both came from lower-middle class families, and we both knew our options as young men in Southeastern Kentucky. Josh was always a good kid. He was athletic and became a high-school celebrity due to his abilities on the football field and the basketball court. But in Eastern Kentucky the small-town fame dies the day you walk off stage with your high school diploma.

As the car was lowered down the 3,500-foot slope, Josh and I shared stories from our past. We continued our conversation during the hour-and-a-half ride to the section where we would be working together. I was feeling great about this new crew. Then Josh began to talk about the conditions of the section.

I looked up and saw a thin piece of slate rock waiting to fall. It was about three feet by four feet and I definitely would have felt it if it had fallen on me…“There ya go, man. Always look up. Don’t ever get off the scoop and start working without looking over your head first.

The top was bad, he said. Three thousand feet of earth pressed down on our workplace. As the weight settles, rock and shale separate causing the shattered shards of strata to fall. Sometimes they fall in pebble-sized pieces, and sometimes they fall in pieces larger than the hood of a 1981 Ford Crown Vic. Usually no one was around to see them come loose. And if you were, you just ignore it because you don’t think it will ever fall on top of you.

Josh advised me to treat this work area differently. “Dude, you gotta be careful up here. Stay under the canopy of the scoop as much as possible. The top is real bad, and there is always rock falling. We just had to take Duke out yesterday because a piece of shale came down and cut his arm. This sh– ain’t no joke. We’re using pans on the roof bolts and doing everything we can, but now that the weather’s changing and drying out, it’s causing a lot of sh– to break loose and fall.”

When we arrived on the section, my new boss, Sonny, was quick to give me orders. “Kid, the top’s bad and the work is gonna be hard here so you better bust ass.” Sonny repeated his warning about the stability of the entry roof. “Now, we got a lot of draw rock falling so be careful and plan on doing a lot of cleaning. I don’t wanna hear any complaints about you not keeping’ the roadways clear for the car men.”

I was relieved to see that the coal seam was thick. I could stand up in this section instead of crawl. It was a relief. But the travel ways were littered with rock. Roof bolts were all hanging six inches to two feet from the top, showing where shale had fallen. Some of the bolts had wooden spacers to fill the gap between the roof bolt plates and the roof, others were just hanging there.

I walked with Josh over to the scoop chargers to start our shift. As I was removing the terminal from the scoop battery, Josh stopped me. “Hey man, look at that sh– over your head. This is what I was talking about. You gotta watch, dude.”

I looked up and saw a thin piece of slate rock waiting to fall. It was about three feet by four feet and I definitely would have felt it if it had fallen on me. Josh grabbed the steel slate bar off the back of the scoop and pried the rock down. “There ya go, man. Always look up. Don’t ever get off the scoop and start working without looking over your head first.”

We started our shift by going to the roof bolters and asking what supplies they needed. We walked the face to see if any ventilation curtain needed repaired and to see what the previous shift left us to clean and rock dust. Today seemed to be in my favor – the entire right side of the section was clean, rock dusted, and had new curtain. All I needed to do was clean the roadways to the feeder and pick up roof bolt supplies. Josh and I worked together cleaning the feeder. Then we both started traveling out to get our supplies.

Josh stopped at the bundle of roof bolts nearest the working section, and I traveled six cross cuts beyond him. I loaded my roof bolts, pie pans, glue, and stopped to eat a morning snack. As I took the last drink of my soda, I heard some rock fall. I thought nothing of it. But when I slid back into the deck of my scoop, something didn’t feel right. I had a gut feeling that didn’t settle. I traveled back toward the section and started looking for Josh. As I got closer, I could see his scoop but not him. I pulled up beside his scoop and climbed out. I caught the reflection of a light off the oil cans sitting in the corner. When I turned around, my stomach knotted up. I saw cable bolts lying under a large pile of rock and Josh’s cap light shining. He was trapped under the rock, dead or knocked out, I didn’t know. The corner of the crosscut had rolled off as Josh was picking up the cable bolts. He was under a 3 x 8 foot piece of rock that was all of three feet thick, if not thicker. I couldn’t move it. I scrambled into the deck of the scoop and traveled full speed, not worrying about all of the supplies spilling out that I had just loaded.

As I traveled through the ventilation curtain into the working section I began screaming at the top of my lungs for help. Sonny came running and I screamed,

“Josh is hurt, he’s covered up. The rib rolled on him and I can’t get it off. He’s about eight breaks down. Hurry!”

Sonny remained calm and gave orders, like a mine foreman should. “Eric, take your repair cart and notify everyone on the section that we need to shut down. We need help. Get the first aid kit, back board, and a railroad jack. We need everyone to stay calm, but we’re gonna need help.”

I never asked how Sonny knew the situation or how bad Josh was hurt. I’m guessing his experience and the fear in my voice let him know how bad it was. “Gary, get on this cart with me and show me where he is. Eric, call outside and tell them to get an ambulance on the way and send the first responders.”

I was full of fear and guilt as we traveled back down the entry to Josh. It could have been me picking up those supplies. I could be trapped under rock and I could be dead.

When we arrived at the accident, Sonny learned that Josh was alive, but unconscious. He tried to talk to him to wake him up. It didn’t work. The others from the crew arrived and we all worked together using slate bars and railroad jacks to remove the rock. Josh had a pulse, he was breathing, but when they checked him they found feces and bleeding inside of his coveralls. That meant that he was seriously hurt.

As they placed him on the backboard and carried him away, I began to feel sick. I lost the soda and snack cake from my morning break. And I thought I had lost my old friend from youth group.

Josh survived, but he was never the same. He couldn’t work. He lived in pain. Pain pill addiction, alcohol abuse, and financial troubles followed.

I lost a good friend, a good coal miner, and a small piece of myself.

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

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