OAKLAND -- A thunder-like rumble rolls out of the darkness. Mike Harvey and the rest of his crew mining coal deep inside Backbone Mountain don't even look up. Tons of rock have just fallen, without warning, a few feet away.
"That's normal," says Harvey, nursing a pinch of snuff in his lower lip. For most people, there's nothing normal about working 650 feet underground, or about slogging through water-logged, pitch-black tunnels while watching out for crumbling ceilings and walls.
But these are everyday conditions at the Mettiki coal mine, Maryland's largest, 12 miles south of Oakland. The work is grimy and grueling at times, and a moment's carelessness -- or just plain bad luck -- can get you maimed or killed.
Still, jobs working underground for Mettiki Coal Corp. are among the most coveted in mountainous Garrett County. The typical miner here earns close to $50,000 a year, twice the average family income in this rugged corner of Western Maryland.
It's enough to lure 144 mostly middle-aged men inside Maryland's tallest mountain day after day, despite the disabling injuries and close calls some have had -- and the rock fall four months ago that killed one of their co-workers. A few even say there's no other job they'd rather have.
"I wouldn't want to drive NASCAR [races] every Sunday, and I wouldn't want to walk the streets of New York after midnight, would you?" asks Harvey, a Cheverly native who has been working in the mine for almost 21 years. "With the proper training, this is actually a very safe place to work."
Mining is far safer than it was in the early decades of this century, when an average of 3,300 perished in the coal fields every year -- including a record 362 men and boys in a single West Virginia mine explosion.
Last year, 29 died in mine accidents nationwide, a decline credited to automation reducing the work force and to government-enforced safety practices.
But the death toll is creeping up again. This year, 29 miners have been killed on the job -- five more than at this time last year.
Mettiki had gone without a fatal accident since 1990. Its worker injury rate was one of the best in the industry -- until June 7.
That's when the mountain claimed Roger Sisler, 53, a steady West Virginian who had mined its ore for 20 years.
A small city
Entering Mettiki's D Portal is like stepping into the twilight zone. From the mine entrance, it's five miles through an eerie network of darkened tunnels to the place where miners are tapping the Upper Freeport coal seam.
On a map, the mine looks like the street grid for a small city, albeit one in eternal night. With more than 100 miles of shafts and crosscuts honeycombing the mountain -- and no visibility at intersections -- a mine employee on the surface must direct traffic by radio to prevent collisions.
Most of the men enter the mountain by riding in a fleet of diesel-powered Humvees. Their four-wheel drive is needed to negotiate the mud-slicked, steeply sloping main shaft that leads down to the working portion of the mine.
In the headlights, the rough-hewn walls of the tunnels look ghostly. They have been coated with limestone powder to control potentially explosive coal dust. Concrete pillars and steel beams prop up the roof, which is lined with a steel screen to keep errant rocks from falling. The screen -- anchored by 6-foot bolts driven into the rocky ceiling -- sags in places with the weight of debris.
A breeze of cool air -- about 60 degrees year-round -- wafts through the tunnels. The government requires use of fans to help prevent explosions and to remove harmful gases and dust from the air the miners breathe.
Mining is not the backbreaking, pick-and-shovel labor it was for their grandfathers or even fathers. Today it is almost completely mechanized, laser-guided and computer-controlled.
Some of the coal is extracted using "continuous miners" -- big, steel-toothed grinders that gnaw holes in the seam. However, the bulk of the work is done with the "longwall" -- a massive shearing device longer than two football fields that carves ore from the mountain in swaths, like a giant cheese slicer.
Still, it's hard, grungy work. The noise from the machinery is deafening, and coal dust, mud and water are everywhere. Miners emerge with blackened faces at the end of an eight-hour shift. And when the machines break down or get buried by a rock fall, the men drag out the shovels.
Once the ore has been gouged out of the mountain, it flows to the surface on conveyor belts. The coal is sorted, washed of impurities and dried, then loaded into trucks or rail cars for shipment. Two of Mettiki's biggest customers are West Virginia power plants, their smokestacks visible in the distance across the ridge tops.
Drop in production
Coal has been mined in Western Maryland since the 1780s, with the industry producing 6 million tons at its peak in 1907. Today, two dozen mines extract only half as much, a drop caused largely by competition from petroleum and from more accessible coal elsewhere.
Mettiki, which accounts for more than 90 percent of Maryland's coal production, has been in operation since 1977. Three previous mines the company worked -- A, B, and C portals -- have been closed, their coal depleted and their shafts caved in.
All deep mines collapse eventually, says Alan B. Smith, Mettiki's manager of underground operations. Nature abhors a vacuum, so spaces carved in mountains tend to fill in as the rock strata settle.
Miners bargain for time -- shoring up the tunnels they've bored so they'll last long enough to get the coal out.
"There's a lot of weight up there," says Smith, 51, who has spent 30 years underground. "This is all a game you play with Mother Nature."
Mining was Roger Sisler's second career. He drove a lumber truck for 12 years before going to work at Mettiki. When he first went into the mine 20 years ago, he told Smith he was so worn out he doubted he could cut it.
But he lasted, moving up the mine hierarchy from red-hatted laborer to become a longwall operator.
"You could put your trust in him," says Smith, who delivered the eulogy at Sisler's funeral. "He was the kind of guy who'd ask for a stronger back before he'd ask for a lighter load."
Sisler, who lived in Horseshoe Run, W.Va., had colon cancer, which took him out of the mine for several weeks and left him with a colostomy. Others might have chosen a less strenuous job after such an illness but, Smith says, "You couldn't keep him from coming back."
Mettiki operates around the clock, and Sisler worked the night shift. On June 7, shortly after entering the mine at 10 p.m., he and a co-worker, cousin Gary Sisler, began to change the cutting bits on the longwall's shearer.
Roof cave-ins are expected in longwall mining. As the shearer slices its way through the mountain, it leaves in its wake an empty chamber without anything to hold it up. It's only a matter of minutes, usually, before the ceiling starts to collapse.
But the longwall and its crew are protected by a huge umbrella -- a line of hydraulically powered steel shields pressed up against the roof where they are mining. Thus, some consider working the longwall the safest job in the mine.
There is, however, a gap in the protection. The shields do not cover a narrow strip of ceiling next to the wall where the coal is being mined. Normally, miners stay back from that opening. But to replace the cutting bits, Roger Sisler had to stand near its edge.
Without warning, two slabs of shale fell from the roof, tumbling through the gap. One 5-foot chunk knocked him down and pinned his legs. The other -- weighing 200 to 300 pounds, by one miner's estimate -- fell on his head and neck.
The rocks narrowly missed Gary Sisler, who had stepped away to pick up some new bits. He turned when he heard the rumble and saw his cousin covered up. He called for help.
Roger Sisler's faint pulse was gone by the time co-workers pried the last rock off him. Two miners trained as emergency medical technicians, using a portable defibrillator stationed underground, could not revive him.
He was pronounced dead at Garrett Community Hospital.
After investigating the accident, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Mettiki for failing to adequately support the roof. Shortly after his death, the agency issued a bulletin expressing alarm about the number of rock-fall fatalities this year.
The government has yet to levy a fine against Mettiki. Company officials have appealed the citation, arguing that all safety precautions prescribed by federal rules were followed.
"We were well within the plan. You do everything you can, and everything right, but something still goes wrong," Smith says. "Make no mistake: You're in an underground coal mine. It's a hazardous environment."
Four months later, Nancy Sisler declines to discuss her husband of 33 years or his death. Her only comment on mining's hazards is that someone could just as easily be killed driving -- a view shared by many miners.
"It was just a freak accident," says Curtis Glotfelty, a cousin of Nancy Sisler's and a longwall operator himself.
Yet, when prompted, some of the men tell stories that suggest the risk is real.
John Rinker's job entails bolting the roof in freshly mined areas -- by some accounts, the most dangerous assignment because rocks can fall before they can be anchored.
Rinker, 45, says a jagged chunk once broke away from the ceiling, puncturing his thigh and breaking his leg. On another occasion, a roof cave-in trapped him and five others in a small chamber for 45 minutes before they could be rescued.
"You've got to be on your toes all the time," Rinker says.
Mettiki's management stresses safety, the miners say. Though it is a nonunion mine, the workers elect representatives to accompany the federal inspectors who frequently visit. In his 21 years in the mine, Glotfelty, 53, has never been seriously injured, but he did have a close call. Once, when an unusually large roof collapse occurred behind the longwall, the blast of air displaced by the falling rock knocked him and another miner down.
Glotfelty got away with bruises, but his co-worker had a broken back and internal injuries.
Glotfelty's wife "would like me to do something else," he acknowledges. But, he says, "it's the best money you can make in this area."
"A few times I've been scared, but I don't worry about it," says Leroy Burgess, 58, who works with Glotfelty on the longwall crew. "I figure when my time's up, it's up."
Some drawn to the well-paid mining jobs can't handle the idea that daylight is five miles away. Smith recalls how a man who'd been working at Mettiki for two years approached him underground one day and said he had to get to the surface right away.
Asked if he was sick, the miner shook his head. "I'm through," he said.
But there is little turnover, company officials say. Two-thirds of Mettiki's workers have been there 20 years, and the average age is 45. Part of that might stem from the pay and benefits, including a 401(k) plan. But there is also a camaraderie among workers and managers not always seen in a workplace.
While giving visitors a tour recently, Smith good-naturedly put up with a bearhug from miner Steve Murray, who sported a pair of women's panties over his coveralls -- a prop from a prank played earlier on another co-worker.
No women, who might be offended by such locker-room antics, work in the mine. Smith says that perhaps nine women once worked there but were laid off when the company slashed its payroll to the present 242, from a peak of 600 in 1982.
"They stick together," Smith says of his men. "They've got this cocky attitude they can take Mother Nature on and beat her. They're proud that miners do something that other people wouldn't."
Tough place to mine
Mining in Backbone Mountain is especially difficult, Smith adds.
The coal is lodged amid layers of crumbly shale and sandstone, and the muddy, rutted mine floor can be slick and treacherous, ready to wrench the knees of the unwary.
"This coal, if it had been easy to get, would have been gone long ago," he says.
Generations on the job
Smith, whose father and grandfather mined coal before him, says he actually enjoys hearing the rumble of falling rock.
In his spare time, Smith likes to play golf and ride his Suzuki motorcycle. But he doesn't take unnecessary risks, he says.
He won't ride the cycle to work because there are too many deer on the roads in the dark hours when he commutes. And he has no interest in spelunking.
"I wouldn't go in a cave," Smith says. "I want to know what's holding this thing up."