Like our fathers, and their fathers before them, we will work the coal mines. Each year, we will blast 550,000 tons of coal out of the earth, enough to power more than 43 million computers every year. We will make about forty grand each, enough to live on, but not enough to save. We will live in a small town, big enough to raise our kids in, but not big enough to keep them here if they study hard at school.
Come one Sunday morning, while the minister of Christ Episcopal exhorts our children to honor their mothers and fathers, we will be distracted by nature's cacophony, the rain drumming the roof, the wind's gusty echoes. Some of us will count the eighteen seconds between the thunder and lightning, and calculate that the storm is almost four miles off - just like No. 7 Mine.
The lightning will flash again, and a stained-glass image of a pale horse and its rider will flicker like an apparition. Eighteen seconds later, the rumbling will reverberate, harsher than before, gently rocking our pews. Five more seconds will pass, and there will be another roar, the vibrations shaking the minister from his sermon. There will be no amens as we rush to our pick-ups.
This is what will await us at No. 7 Mine: a lightning spark in a pocket of methane, two explosions, collapsed walls, and eleven of us trapped if not already dead.
Because no one likes working Sundays, the youngest coal miners will be inside, the ones with the least know-how, boys who will either panic or not take the danger seriously enough. The ones with the smallest kids. Because it's Sunday, the above-ground foreman will be a kid also, an aspiring coal executive, someone who will have never been underground except for a tour, someone who will only know how to call for help that's forty-five minutes away.
Ambulances will rush to the scene, but the paramedics will only be able to wait while we dig. It will take forever. We will stand by, fidgeting, berating with curses the engineers who test for further methane pockets before letting us dig further. We won't apologize because we won't need to. The engineers will be cursing too.
The storm will eventually clear, and news helicopters will swoop over a pastiche of color that will materialize when our wives and mothers, stunning in their Sunday dresses, close their black umbrellas. Some of our children will frolic in the mud, and we will be thankful they are too young to understand.
The sheriff will read a list of the missing, and eleven families will be escorted away to wait together in trailers. The governor will visit to offer condolences, but none of us will vote for him, not after this. The rest of us will breathe relief. Our husbands, our brothers, our fathers will only be helping with the rescue. They will be coming home. Thank you, Jesus, dear, sweet joyful Jesus. It will take a burst of nervous and innocent laughter to embarrass us back to solemnity.
Those with children will go home to the television. We will watch Ted, a local kid who will have practiced his Connecticut accent in college just to get his first job back in Wheeling. Ted will explain how we will have sealed off the mine entrances to keep out the fire-fueling oxygen, and how we will have used high-powered microphones to listen for survivors. We will tell the camera what it was like to survive the last disaster, but when we tell him we are scared to death, he will just marvel at our courage, and send it back to the studio. Even though we hate television as one of Satan's temptations, we will hope our sons grow up to be like Ted, a man who will only talk about mine explosions, not die in one.
In the end, twenty-eight hours of rescue attempts will fail. We will find the men together, hugging, like sleeping toddlers. We will find notes in their pockets, last words to wives and mothers we know we shouldn't read, and won't. We will whisper about poor planning, about faulty air packs. If only we'd gotten there sooner, we will say. Oh God, we will realize, they suffocated slowly, oh God, why couldn't the blast have killed them, oh God, why did He let them suffer?
There will be a lengthy investigation: hundreds of pages of findings, photographs, diagrams, measurements, interviews, and theories. Safety improvements will be recommended. The union will blame the company. The company will blame God.
The company will pay for a memorial service at the Holiday Inn, the inside of which some of us have never seen. There will be good food. Local mine bosses will tell us through microphones about tragedy and regret. They will honor our spirit. They will pray with us, but they will not share our prayers.
We will fantasize about bosses burning alive in the mine, crushed by rock, suffocating. We will fantasize about their bodies in caskets. We will fantasize about beating them with our fists. We will fantasize about striking the mine just to teach them. We will fantasize about shouting at them to get the hell out of here, about running them off the stage. We will fantasize about maybe, just maybe, finding the words to tactfully explain they're not welcome here, about them understanding our polite pleas to leave. Instead, we will hold our breath and avoid their eyes, hoping to avoid handshakes afterwards. We will fantasize about dignity.
Eleven separate times, we will go to Christ Episcopal, and then on to the cemetery. Each time, the preacher will intone: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Each time we will cry, husbands hugging wives, fathers hugging children, miners hugging each other. Each time we will swear to our wives we have always been careful and always will be. Each time we will think about going back to work, about how our first job will be to clean up the disaster and rebuild, because, after all, the coal will still be down there.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, James A.W. Shaw. All rights reserved.