Smoking in a coal mine can light the path to hell

ROGER SIMON

December 28, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

The cage dropped down the shaft and the light rushed awa and then blinked out above us.

"Matches, cigarettes, cigars, lights, anything?" John Prudent asked me.

John Prudent, 30, was a coal miner. He had a college degree, but he found out that he could earn 2 1/2 times in a coal mine what he earned above the ground.

I don't smoke, I told him.

"Don't care if you smoke or not," he said. "Just don't light anything. Nothing."

The cage bumped to a halt. We were 740 feet down in a deep shaft coal mine in southern Illinois.

A mile and a half away, on the first day of winter in 1951, the last work shift before Christmas had gone down 600 feet into the Orient No. 2 mine.

Above ground, it was cold enough so they could see their breath in the air. Below ground, the temperature was near zero. At 7:35 p.m., a spark, perhaps from an electric motor, touched off a cloud of methane gas and the temperature went up a few thousand degrees.

The fireball blasted down the passageway, burning and shriveling the bodies of the men near the blast center.

At the far reaches of the mine, those miners who happened to be exhaling got surface burns and lived. Those who happened to be inhaling, got seared lungs and died.

One hundred and nineteen men never made it out of the Orient No. 5 alive that day.

You almost never hear about mine deaths unless they are dramatic. But from 1988 to today, 303 people have died in U.S. coal mines.

Mostly they die from what is known as "roof-fall," which is when the ceiling gives way. It is common enough so that it rarely makes anything except the local papers.

John Prudent reached over and switched on my helmet lamp. It was pitch black at the bottom of the mine and my lamp cut a cone of light in the cold still air.

I was a rookie reporter and had been searching for someone to take me down in a mine. I found Ardell Grimes, a safety inspector for the United Mine Workers, who hooked me up with Prudent.

"Don't look anybody in the face," Prudent reminded me.

I had already learned that in the bars where the coal miners hung out after work. The miners wouldn't look me in the eye and I thought they were a shifty bunch of characters until I found out the reason:

You look someone in the eye when you are wearing a helmet lamp and you blind them. So miners learn to use their peripheral vision when talking to people.

Glenn Morgan was sitting on the continuous miner this day. His face was streaked with sweat and coal dust.

A continuous miner is a long low machine with a row of circulating teeth 15 feet across. When it bites into the vein of coal there is a roar and a shriek and the air is filled with choking coal dust.

Morgan dug the teeth into the mine face and it gave way. I would have turned and run, but I was up to my ankles in coal.

Morgan stopped the machine and gave a hard sideways look at Prudent. Nobody much liked the idea of him bringing a tourist down into the mine.

"You got a light?" Morgan asked me.

Don't smoke, I said.

Morgan nodded and dug into his coveralls and brought out a pouch of Red Man tobacco. "Chew?" he said.

I declined.

I never came across a miner who smoked. Not underground and not above ground. You just didn't want to get into the habit of striking a flame.

On Dec. 7 of this year, there was a an explosion at the Southmount Coal No. 3 mine near Norton, Va. Eight miners were killed. It was Virginia's worst mine disaster in 32 years.

Last week, investigators found cigarette butts and lighters down in the mine near where the men had died.

Nobody is yet saying that smoking caused the blast, but the Labor Department decided to make the finding public as a warning to other miners around the nation.

The department called the discovery "frightening."

And that is certainly one word you could use to describe smoking in a coal mine. But I've got two others:

Suicide. And murder.

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