Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Working in Coal Mines Pits Men against Constant Danger

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Working in Coal Mines Pits Men against Constant Danger

Article excerpt

Yank open the metal band. Expand the bag. Straighten the air hose. Tug the lever on the bottom. Put the mouthpiece between your gums and teeth. Clamp your nostrils. Slip the goggles over your eyes.

Then walk - don't run - along the path marked by green reflectors.

This was Survival 101, a short but serious class in escape, should the air suddenly turn foul two or three miles back into the Conant Mine near Pinckneyville. For an underground visit, you either show that you can use two kinds of self-rescue devices or you don't get in. Because if there is a crisis, you either use them or you don't get out. The miners at Centralia No. 5 down in Wamac didn't have these gadgets 50 years ago - not the carbon-monoxide-filter breathers on our belts, not the oxygen-generating breathers posted at critical spots. "A lot of men would have lived if they'd had them," explained Pete Wyckoff, manager of Conant, who was born about the time 111 of his mining forebears died in the infamous Centralia explosion. It was my reflection on that disaster commemoration in March that prompted Arch Mineral Co. of St. Louis to invite me to see why America doesn't kill its miners much anymore. The exercise included not killing me at Conant, holder of the top state safety award for 1996. This was my first trip underground, a surprisingly comfortable adventure that spurred safety director Bob Blaylock to remind me occasionally to keep vigilant. "Always remember that this is a hostile environment," he said. How hostile? When I tapped a ceiling, a slice of shale the diameter of a coffee cup dropped unexpectedly past my nose. It was no big deal, but some collapses can be. So metal roof bolts are driven two feet or more into the overhead rock to keep it up. In 1994, a miner was killed by a falling slab about 16 feet by 20 feet by 3 feet. Yes, feet! I learned this, by the way, after spending considerable time standing beside a man doing exactly the same job the dead miner had been doing. It's a hostile environment indeed. But that was the only fatality since the mine opened in 1991. Earlier, the coal industry barely bothered to count all its dead. Until Centralia, the national toll was always at or more than 1,000 a year. …

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