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W.Va. miners still pay labor's toll of blood, sweat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOGAN COUNTY, W.Va.-- In the dark of the pit, his helmet lamp spears the black and catches the sparkle of swirling rock dust in the air. Sooner or later, Danny Kegley figures, that dust may kill him.

The mine timbers beside him could bring death much faster. They snap and crackle with the weight of millions of tons of rock.

Either way, it's a gruesome end. Mr. Kegley shrugs. Some unseen tug takes him back down into the coal mines every day.

"I don't know what it is. It's in the blood, I guess," he said. "Once you're a coal miner, you always want to be one."

This Labor Day celebrates the toils of a society whose work has greatly changed. It is more mechanized, less physical, more white-collar.

But there are some whose jobs still demand payment in sweat and levy a tax of lives. Here among the coal mines of West Virginia, the creases of the land harbor the tradition of that hard, dangerous labor.

*

At 2:50 p.m. each day, Danny Kegley lies sideways on a cart, spooned in among nine other men for his commute to work. The flat vehicle growls into a slit in the earth and disappears.

The air is immediately cool. The underbelly of the mountain slides past just inches above the helmets of the reclining men. It takes 45 minutes for the "mancart" to grind and bump 1 1/2 miles into the heart of the mountain.

This is his workplace. It is about 33 inches high and 20 feet wide. The floor is a black mud of coal dust. The ceiling is rock and always suspect. It may drop at any time: in small, annoying pieces; in big chunks that cripple; in whole sections that bury in a shuddering, lethal thump.

Fourteen men have died in West Virginia mines so far this year. Another was buried in a cave-in last week.

For nine hours, Mr. Kegley and his companions will be in this mine, unable to stand. They will work on their backs or crawling on their hands and knees. They will eat their lunch sitting. If the earth has sweated water onto the the mine floor, they will work in that all day.

"The first time I went in the mine, it was real weird," said Mr. Kegley. He is 41, a soft-spoken man with a deceptively round body and hair that curls on his neck.

"I always thought I couldn't stand all that mountain over my head," he recalled. "Afraid it would fall in on me."

His brother, like his father a mine foreman, convinced him to try the work. "I've been in it ever since."

Mr. Kegley is a roof-bolter. He sets up timbers as the coal is removed. The mine is actually a low-ceilinged grid of corridors and pillars of coal. His crew today is mining the pillars, stealing away the coal supporting the roof and backing out of each section before it collapses.

The timbers Mr. Kegley pounds into place will not hold up the mountain for long. But the wood delays the collapse, and the groan of the beams gives the men warning when it is near.

All day, as he works, Mr. Kegley listens to the pops of the wood as it sighs under the weight of the rock above. All the miners listen, even as the heavy equipment they operate rumbles like rolling thunder. They learn to read the sounds: that crack of timber is safely many rows back, this tinkle of rock is harmless shale-fall.

Every once in a while, a peculiar thump will make all the men start. Their headlamps dance together down the darkened shaft to check for a bowed ceiling or fractured timbers.

"You can tell from the sound what the top's doing," Mr. Kegley said. "You know it's time to get out." He has never been seriously hurt in 15 years in the mines.

"I enjoy pinning the tops," he said. "You've got everybody's life in

your hands."

*

They call the adjoining county "Bloody Mingo," for all the gunplay that has serenaded the mines. The Hatfields and McCoys waged their feud nearby. Over the years, coal company thugs and union bullies shot it out in the struggle to organize the mines.

The union finally won, only to see its success now slipping away.

As the price of a ton of coal has dropped to $20 -- less than a third of the price in the mid-1970s -- the big, unionized coal companies have struggled. Smaller, non-union mines have started up, some just a guise to shed the union.

"Clearly there's a problem," said Michael Buckner, an official at .. the Washington headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America. The union has only about half the 140,000 active members it did in the mid-1970s, he said.

Many other unions lost ground in the 1980s. Where unions represented almost one in three private sector employees in 1970, now only 12 percent are union workers.

"We're just trying to survive these years of a Republican administration that is anti-union to the hilt," said Howard Green, a West Virginia representative with the UMW.

The irony is that mine workers are producing record amounts of coal. Like farmers, they have become victims of their own success.

In Mr. Kegley's crew, "Chops" -- Roger Johnson -- directs the huge "miner." This 40-foot-long machine with fearsome carbide teeth chews coal off the wall of the mine in 11-foot-wide swaths. In a three-minute swipe, he can claim 1 1/2 tons of coal, which would have taken his father all day using a pick and a shovel.

Using modern equipment, and with an increase in strip mines, West Virginia produced more coal last year than in any year since 1957, when it had three times as many miners.

The men worry about their future. There are fewer jobs. The non-union companies often do not contribute to pensions or guarantee insurance benefits for the retirees.

But the pay is $17 an hour at a good mine. Many are bound here by the wages.

"I can show you people I went to school with who went to college and are making $25,000 a year," said Glen Nida, the foreman on Mr. Kegley's crew.

"I'm a high school grad making $60,000 a year. The pay's good. The benefits are good. I'll work here till I die."

*

They are proud of their history, the miners here. Nearly every one followed father and grandfather into the mines. But the call of that tradition rings bitterly.

The men answer it, knowing its echo is hardship and misery. They have watched their fathers die of accidents and black lung, and they watch themselves dying.

The year he was born, Bobby Gibson's father was crushed by a cave-in, crippled for life. Nineteen years later, Bobby followed his father's steps into the mines.

He was 21 when a loading machine folded up his brother against a coal rib in the mine where they worked together. It crippled his brother and eventually killed him. Bobby Gibson went back to work the next day.

The last doctor he saw told him his lungs were filling with dust, the kind of dust that killed his father-in-law in April with the slow strangulation of black lung disease. The doctor said leave the mines. Mr. Gibson, now 42, is figuring on staying 13 more years so he can retire.

"He works himself too hard," said his wife, Wanda.

They have a neat, modest home in Right Hand Fork Hollow just a few miles from where he was born. With neighbors' help, the Gibsons built their house 10 years ago and owe nothing on the land. They have two cars in the driveway, a daughter in college, a son in the Air Force.

"If I'm going to get something in this life, I've got to work for it," Mr. Gibson said. "Nobody's going to give it to me.

"I just put my heart in my work. I've got a family to take care of and bills to pay."

But there is more to it than that. The money does not explain why Mr. Gibson works without a lunch break, why he pushes his mining machine to get that extra cut of coal before quitting time, why he is proud to have missed only five days of work in 22 years -- and that for broken ribs.

There is in these miners an allegiance to their work, a pride in their job even if it is dirty and hard and killing.

"I like it. When I'm cutting into the mountain, I go somewhere where nobody's ever been," said Bobby Gibson. "I've never been to the moon, like those other fellows did. But I guess this gives me the same thrill."

Mostly, the miners address the dangers with a shrug. It is not so much bravado as denial. Injuries are the payback for mistakes, is their mantra. Don't make mistakes, and you won't get hurt. Don't crawl under unsupported roofs. Listen to the timbers.

But for all their pride, few miners want their sons to carry on the tradition. Mr. Kegley wants his two sons, David, 14, and Philip, 12, to go to college.

"I think there's a better life for them than coal mining," he said.

Mr. Gibson agrees. "When I was growing up, education didn't mean that much. You could get a job anywhere as long as you had a strong back," he said.

"But we've done everything in our power to get our kids an education. It's the only way out."

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