A day in the shoes of a miner

The stunning rescue of nine miners in Somerset, Pa., brought back memories of my brief encounter with what has to be the toughest job in the world.

It was August 1992, and I was working as a consultant for a bank in the heart of the "billion-dollar coal fields" of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. My client said the only way to understand coal miners was to see them in action. So off I went, five miles into the side of a mountain in Pike County, Kentucky.

Our three-foot-high electronic buggy was like a flattened version of a Disney ride. But this was serious, as my guide reminded me about halfway down, when he shut down the clanging rail car and turned off all lights.

What I saw was a perfect blackness, made more eerie by the silence. You don't even hear yourself breathe. After a few moments the operator said that he did this every so often to remind himself of where he was and why safety always comes first.

As we resumed our journey, I thought about my safety training and protective gear, and lightly tapped my emergency one-hour "portable lung." As I began wondering if an hour was really enough, the operator stopped again in a large pool of water. He pointed out new wood tie supports just installed overhead, because large portions of the ceiling had recently caved in. It became obvious that our safety equipment would be useless if those supports gave way.

What struck me about our half-hour ride in the "manway" was that it was covered with a ghostly white powder. The operator said that this kept down dust for cleaner breathing and also protected us, as a spark from the trolley could be disastrous near a gas vein. Somewhere under this white cosmetic was the real "black gold," probably the highest quality bituminous coal anywhere, because of its high energy and low air-polluting content.

Once we reached the end of the line, we had to walk hunchbacked for about 15 minutes to the work site. The walls were now layers of gray and brown, with seams of glittering black gold.

Soon I heard equipment noises ahead and the darkness slowly became light. Then it hit me: There are people down here! Real miners, with their coal-blackened faces and uniforms.

When my guide introduced me to the crew, the supervisor, with a "big chew" of tobacco in his mouth, learned that I was a first-timer and joked that I had better stay close to my guide, because they were still looking for the guy he brought down three weeks earlier.

The other miners joined in and asked me about the fishing, football, and weather in Miami, where I lived. Most of the miners looked to be in their 20s and 30s, but it was hard to tell, as they were covered in black, except for the whites of their eyes, teeth, and lights. I later learned that one of them was African-American.

The only colors that mattered were the shiny black of a shale-free coal seam and the green of the dollars that would be even greener if production stayed high and accident-free.

After I hummed the old "Sixteen Tons" coal song, one worker suggested I try a little mining myself. I got a quick course in operating the "electronic miner"; the control panel reminded me of my son's Nintendo. In no time, I had loaded the hopper with more than 16 tons of "pure black," which was dispatched up top on a conveyor belt.

The other high point of my tour was using the hand pick to get my own piece of coal, which is now a paperweight. Pure coal has a diamond-like glitter and a "voice" known as coal popping, a constant Rice Krispies crackling caused by megatons of pressure.

As I said goodbye to the men, I realized there was a special camaraderie among coal miners, similar to that among police and firefighters. But in this case, the "bad guy" is a cave-in, a gas deposit, an unmapped reservoir, equipment failure, or human error. There is also the invisible "black lung," which the miners said was "no big deal" anymore with their ventilation system. Somehow I didn't quite believe them, as I blew coal dust out of my nose for days.

As I followed my guide back to the main line, the voices, machine noises, and lights disappeared. The black and white and deadness of the underground gave way to the colors and sounds of life above.

As my guide took me back to my car, he pointed out a giant conveyor belt spitting out solid black into a mountain of coal being loaded into waiting trucks.

He reminded me that my 16 tons of coal was there and would soon be processed across the river in West Virginia. The final product would be put onto a coal train and might end up at a Pittsburgh steel plant or New York power company, or even barged to Europe. I wondered if the ultimate users cared about the miners.

Now I wonder if those nine miners rescued on Sunday will soon be back on the job. My hunch is many will. I remember asking the old-timer I met in 1992 if this was the toughest job in the world. He thought for a minute and replied: "The only thing tougher is being an unemployed miner. Don't forget, we're in a recession, and we all have a lot of bills to pay. We thank God just for having a job!"

• Kenneth H. Thomas lectures on finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

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