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Working in a Coal Mine


Commentator Robin Webb knows all about life in coal mines. From the time she was 18 until she was 25, she was a miner, just like generations of her family in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. She's now a state representative, and she offers these thoughts.


Among miners' kinfolk, there's a brother- and sisterhood of underground coal mining. There's a camaraderie created by entering a hostile, dark, damp, gassy, foreign and often hostile environment. There's a dependence for survival as you entrust your existence to the people who enter the mine with you, make the man trip with you and work side by side, section by section, with you.

The tragedy that unfolded in that mine shaft in Sago, West Virginia, when an explosion heaved the earth from rib to rib, off the floor, releasing smothering gases, is unfathomable to most. Yet this occurrence is a known and accepted risk to those of us who've ever donned a cap light. You know when you go down, you may not come out, but you just don't dwell on it. You focus on the immediate tasks; the machine, the shot or the scoop cycle that provides those production incentives and busies you to the point of oblivion to the dangers of the environment and the potential consequence of error.

There's no amount of training to prepare you for the first time you feel the rumble of a shot, the headache that ensues from the ingestion of explosive, the falling roof of old works or a pop-out of a rock that pins you to the floor of the mine. I worked in a safe mine, but one day a rock popped out at the end of the shift. The rock was the size of a desk. It pinned me to the ground, knocked my cap light out. I'm laying there under the rock. All I saw was big, wide eyes, the eyes of my foreman. It wasn't that big, the rock, but it pinned my legs, and no amount of training prepares you for that.

No matter how safe you are, things are going to happen like that, and you just don't know when. Yet you go back in and down, you go back to feed your family, to be able to stay and live in the place where you were raised or to have temporary work until something else comes along. Perhaps you don't mind the work or its dangers or, like it is so often in our region, because your daddy or mama made you a legacy.

Dwight Yoakam wrote a song, "The Miner's Prayer," and I said those words at the beginning of each shift and when I reached the mine opening to daylight at the end of each day. I prayed for miners in the last week as my brothers in West Virginia fought for their lives, employing the survival training both taught and instinctual. Now we must pray for the families and pay our respect and homage to the spirit of my brothers, who fought the valiant battle and have gone on to join hundreds of others of similar fate. `When the whistle blows each morning and I walk down in that cold, dark mine, I say a prayer to my dear Savior: "Please let me see the sunshine one more time."'

NORRIS: Kentucky state Representative Robin Webb lives in Grayson, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Webb