OAKLAND - When the shift changed at Mettiki coal mine yesterday afternoon, the begrimed miners emerging from the bowels of Western Maryland's Backbone Mountain pressed for news from neighboring West Virginia, where a dogged search was under way for 13 miners missing after a mine explosion there over the weekend.
One of the Mettiki miners knows one of those unaccounted for in the Sago mine accident, said Alan B. Smith, manager of underground operations at Maryland's largest deep mine.
But at tense times like these, Smith, who described the shift change for a reporter later in the day, said miners everywhere feel a kinship for those who pursue the same grimy and hazardous living of wresting coal from hundreds of feet beneath the earth.
"Everybody takes it hard," Smith said, likening mining to a brotherhood - one in which miners must rely on one another to come out safely every time.
But Smith, a veteran of more than 30 years underground, acknowledged that there was little encouraging news to give his miners yesterday in the hours before the first body was pulled from the West Virginia mine.
"Everybody knows what the deal is," he said. "If you work underground, you understand what kind of fix those fellows are in."
With a dense fog swirling around the mountaintop, Smith sat in Mettiki's almost empty offices 12 miles south of Oakland, in Garrett County, scanning his computer screen occasionally for news as a new shift of miners labored below.
Stan Skiles, an electrician at Mettiki and a 25-year veteran of the business, stayed up late watching the television for news of the West Virginia miners.
A trained mine-rescue specialist, Skiles thought he might get a call to assist - but none ever came. Friends and family, however, had called to inquire about his safety.
Dwight D. Kreiser, Mettiki's general manager, said Mettiki officials had offered to send the mine's seven-member rescue teams to aid in the West Virginia search, but the mine operators there apparently had availed themselves of closer rescue crews.
"Not a miner in the country isn't pulling for them," Kreiser said.
Danger is a constant companion in the waterlogged, pitch-black tunnels that deep miners enter every day - with falling rocks, swirling dust and harmful gases a threat to maim or kill the unwary or unlucky. Mining is much safer than nearly a century ago, when more than 3,000 perished every year in the nation's coal fields - including 362 men and boys in a single West Virginia mine explosion.
Mining fatalities have declined sharply since then -22 were recorded nationwide through Dec. 30 of last year - an improvement attributable largely to automation and government-enforced safety practices.
The last coal mining fatality in Maryland occurred here at Mettiki in 1999, when a 53-year-old miner was crushed by two slabs of shale that fell from the roof of the mine as he was working on the "longwall" - a massive shearing device that carves ore out of the coal seams.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Mettiki for failing to adequately support the roof where the accident occurred - an incident mine officials say they have reviewed without finding any real flaw in safety procedures.
Mettiki officials point out that since that fatality, the 6,000-acre underground complex enjoyed one 360-day stretch without an accident taking a miner off the job - a record for which the company received a favorable citation from federal safety regulators.
Nevertheless, the number of safety violations reported by government inspectors at the mine increased last year to 136 in 2005, up from 86 a year earlier. They included citations for inadequate roof support after the company had two falls with no injuries in April and August.
Kreiser, the mine's general manager, described last year's increase in violation notices as "a little peak" amid an overall decline over the past several years. He said most of the citations were for relatively minor infractions - "they're kind of like a traffic ticket," he added.
Overall, violations at Maryland's underground coal mines surged more than 60 percent last year. The Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 305 citations at the state's three underground coal mines in 2005, compared with 188 a year earlier - a 62 percent increase.
Injuries declined, though, to 22 in 2005 from 27 a year earlier, according to the reports. There were no deaths.
Coal output from the state's three underground mines declined to 2.5 million tons in 2005, from 3.3 million the year before. Mettiki produced 2.2 million tons, down from 3.1 million a year earlier, the government reported.
The three underground mines are among 31 active or temporarily idled coal mines in the state, according to federal regulators. Most of Maryland's coal mines are surface mines, also known as strip mines. About 500 people work in Maryland coal mines.