Untold Stories of Quecreek's Flood

Coal Miners, Water and Heartless Capitalism

by Mike Ely

Revolutionary Worker #1162, August 11, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

"Those are my brothers down there."

Miner at the Quecreek rescue operations

"The scary part was watching the water rise and knowing that you don't have a way out."

Coalminer Dennis Hall after rescue

Eight miners and a foreman went to work June 24. They left the afternoon daylight and entered the portal of Quecreek mine--traveling together through the darkness a mile-and-a-half horizontally, underground, to the working face of "1st Left Section." And they divided up to their various jobs--grinding up the coal, securing the rock ceiling of the tunnels, and running the coal transport buggies to the conveyor belt.

Quecreek mine is only a year old. It is a small operation in southwestern Pennsylvania, employing 65 workers. The miners are still "driving" the basic tunnels forward, putting the belts and airways in place, so that the coal on this property can be systematically and completely removed over a decade. There is no union at Quecreek.

As the world now knows, these nine men were pushing forward to the boundary line--to the edge of the coal leased by Black Wolf Coal Company. They were heading straight for the old works of the Saxman Mine that had been dug and then abandoned in the 1950s.

The coal seam dips and climbs underground, and the miners were working at an uphill grade as they dug forward toward Saxman's lease line. On the other side of a disappearing buffer of coal were 50 million gallons of water, accumulated over 50 years as the creek water above filled old tunnels and workings.

Mark Popernack was running the "continuous miner"--20 tons of thick steel plate, electrical motors and revolving drums of rippers--digging huge bites from the coal face. And at 9 p.m., a flood of raging water burst through, as his machine cut into the wall in front of him.

"It was an instant flood--two seconds, one second, an instant flood," he later said.

Everything disappeared. The roar of the flood drowned out all other sound. His helper was simply washed down the tunnel and grouped up with the rest of the crew. Mark was cut off.

Stunned, terrified, the men went into action. Dennis Hall grabbed the phone to warn the mine's second crew, who were working halfway to the mine portal, in the lowest part of the mine. The call saved their lives, as the wall of soot-black water rushed downhill toward them at 60 miles an hour.

Anyone who has worked underground knows this moment--far too many have experienced the flash of explosion, or flood, or massive roof-fall and all of us have had nightmares about being trapped miles from the sun, with air and escape cut off by rock, or water or fire.

Mark seemed unreachable. "They couldn't hear me over the water," he said. "I shook my head, shook my lamp--no, I couldn't make it." The rest of the crew headed out, going with the flow, racing to make it through the lowest point of entry tunnel before the water there reached the ceiling. They hung close together, feeling their way in the darkness for almost an hour, hunched over in the four-foot-high passageway, with the water rising rapidly on their bodies, first waist deep, then neck deep, with their heads pressed against the roof and their helmet lights dancing across the surly underground river.

Exhausted, choked by water, weighted down by heavy clothes and boots, they could suddenly see ahead, the passageway was simply full to the roof. The exit was flooded. They had to go back, uphill, against that torrent, to the workface they had just left.

"1st Left Section" itself was the highest point underground, and there they decided to barricade themselves in. "We tried to outrun it, but it was too fast," Blaine Mayhugh later said.

They risked their lives to bridge the flood and rescue Popernack. The crew was together, pooling their thoughts and their fading strength, sharing water, soda and a single sandwich. The miners decided that from then on, they were "either going to live or die as a group."

Together, they worked to build cinderblock and canvas walls. As the mine filled, the cold water broke through the barricades and rose within their small 3x12 chamber. The air grew stifling as the oxygen started to deplete. Soaked, using only one or two lamps at a time, they wrote notes to their loved ones, and tied themselves together, so that their bodies would not drift apart in death.

With remarkable skill, rescuers outside dropped a six-inch hole, through 250 feet of rock, finding the tiny pocket where the miners were trapped. That hole brought life--fresh, heated air that kept the trapped men from smothering. They huddled together to keep warm, waiting in utter darkness to conserve their remaining lamp batteries, listening for the drilling noises of rescue.

When the word spreads that coal miners are trapped underground, that the ambulances have pulled up, that families have gathered to wait--the hearts of people everywhere go out to them in concern and support. Working people have a sense of what it means to go deep into the earth, to work bent over following the seams of rock and coal. People respect the deep solidarity that miners forge in their difficult struggles, and workers everywhere admire the militancy that miners bring with them into the struggles of our class.

For three days, millions of people watched as rescuers on the surface drilled toward the trapped men. Early on July 28, 77 hours after the mine flooded, a three-foot-wide rescue hole was finally completed and all nine miners were lifted to the surface.

For Official America and its corporate media, these events were played as a Phase 2 of the World Trade Center recovery--with the difference that this time they found someone alive. The media mood-makers, eager for an "upbeat story," transformed the events of Quecreek into a triumphant patriotic parable about "God, Family and Technology."

But in the process, much of the truth here went untold. The underground disaster of Quecreek was man-made--inseparable from the heartless decisions of capital and from the last decades of corporate rampage.

There are questions that demand to be answered: Why, after all, did this happen? Is there no way for workers to protect themselves from such floods? And why exactly are there hundreds of empty mines filled with underground water honeycombing the eastern coalfields?

Water, Mining and Capitalism

Once, years ago, when I was 20 and brand new to the mines, I was sitting wide- eyed in the section dinner hole when one brother decided to confront Steve K., a hateful, old-school, slavedriver of a foreman.

"Steve," he said, "I swear, you would risk our lives for one more car of coal." K. looked over, with his cold fish-eyed stare, and slowly said, "Not for one car, but I will for two."

If you dig tunnels underground, below creeks and rivers, they will fill with water. That's a fact of life. Modern mining (and modern industry generally) was impossible before the 1770s, when the first steam-driven engine was created to pump water from the deep seams of Britain's coalfields.

But there is nothing natural or necessary about the existence of dangerous abandoned works. If mining were carried out systematically, in a planned way, there would be no unclaimed coal or abandoned tunnels left at the end. As the coal seam is removed one bite at a time, as the mountain "sets down," the rock seams come together.

While the mine is being worked, pumps keep the work areas dry. But if the mine is closed prematurely, the pumps are withdrawn. Below the water table, water builds in the tunnels. Above the water table, the old works often fill with explosive methane or suffocating, oxygen-depleted air.

There are abandoned mines everywhere because, over and over, capitalists have opened and closed mines, large and small, in keeping with the whims of their profit.

After World War 2, the U.S. imperialists came in control of the Persian Gulf and oil was cheap. Domestic transportation was shifted from coal-fired trains to diesel-fueled trucks, and hundreds of mines closed. Two-thirds of the coal miners were driven into unemployment and into northern cities. Those who remained were pressed, endlessly, to boost production, take risks, and mine coal more and more cheaply so their employers could compete with oil.

It was during that historic downturn that the Saxman mine was closed--sealed and left to fill with water.

In recent years, another new twist of capitalism has left hundreds more tunnels abandoned: in the 1980s, the ruling class opened vast surface mines, stripping the coal, and systematically weakened the power of the organized miners.

Suddenly it became possible to open non-union deep mines--even in coalfields that had been strongholds of working class struggle. A large corporation could close their unionized mine, and lease the same coal to a non-union coal company--small operations where the workers would not have inspections by elected union safety committees, where the miners could be pressured to work overtime or take that extra risk. Of course that switch, from large unionized mines to small non-union "dog holes," requires closing down the old works and opening new tunnels into the same seam.

Today, under this assault, the miners union has shrunk to half its size a generation ago--100,000 members, with only 26,000 actually working as coal miners. The rest are laid off, retired or disabled. Only a third of working miners are now unionized--the lowest percentage in almost a century.

Southwestern Pennsylvania, where Quecreek is, was once a union stronghold. Twenty years ago, it was unthinkable that there would be non-union mines there. Now fewer than 2,000 workers there are organized, out of the 9,000 employed miners. Non-union operations like Quecreek are moving through the same seam once worked by abandoned unionized operations like Saxman.

Black Wolf's Calculation

Black Wolf Coal's operation at Quecreek is kept strictly non-union. And the control of that production is a typical corporate shell game--Black Wolf contracts for the stripmine company PBS Coals Inc., which in turn produces coal for who-knows-which-huge-energy-corporation.

State officials have been saying this flood was probably caused by "inaccurate maps"-- blaming everything on 50-year-old errors made by long-dead mine foremen.

This covers up for the capitalist crimes: The reason such old maps are inaccurate is that mine capitalists traditionally slashed and grabbed for extra coal underground. At the boundary lines, they would order the crews to keep digging, to gouge out a little extra coal leaving tunnels that went unrecorded.

Regardless of what those old maps showed--the simple fact is that the current management of Quecreek knew there was massive water ahead of "1st Left Section."

People ask: Isn't there some way to prevent such a flood?

Of course there is. The media chatters about needing new underground sonar, blah, blah, blah. But the real-world solution is low-tech and well known.

In the years I worked underground, we often cut toward and even into old works. To prevent a flood, you stay hundreds of feet away from the boundary lines. When approaching a flooded mine, you stop production every hour, and you drill ahead horizontally with a thin augur, usually 20 or 30 feet, to make sure there isn't a hidden tunnel just ahead. When that augur hits water, pipes can be put in to pump it out, before mining resumes.

This is simple, and it is considered routine. But augur drilling stops production for 10 or 15 minutes and cuts that flow of profitable coal about 25 percent a day.

It has come out that Black Wolf had a special permit that allowed them to get as close as 95 feet to the abandoned Saxman works. Meanwhile, in Quecreek's "1st Left Section," the miners apparently were not allowed to drill test holes in front of themselves. Instead the miners were ordered to push ahead, uphill, into 50 million gallons of water, backed up 45 feet deep.

It was a cold, calculated management gamble, that almost cost the lives of two workcrews.

All kinds of official investigations will now unfold at Quecreek, as the company owners press to return their operation to production. Some facts may come out, others may be carefully covered up (as usually happens in these cases).

But the untold story here is that capitalism riddles the coal seams with half-worked tunnels and abandoned mines, and then sends new generations back into danger when profitability returns. It is irrational, wasteful, and potentially deadly.

Leaving No Man Behind?

The media played the Quecreek rescue like a remake of Black Hawk Down -- as if coal operators and workers are "all in this together," and as if the whole country now operates according to Hollywood war slogans like "Leave no man behind."

Listening to that crap, I have to say, it left my stomach in knots.

The coalfields of the U.S. are full of people "left behind"--although this, too, is an untold story, made invisible by the media blindspots.

In southern West Virginia, where I worked, the rich seams of high-quality coking coal were simply shut down in the 1980s as the layoffs hit the steel industry. The workers there had started to dream that maybe life for them might turn out less hard than for their parents. And then, suddenly, without warning, it all shut down.

MacDowell County, for example, was a deserted shell by the mid-1980s, with 90 percent unemployment. Huge mine portals that once employed many hundreds were closed and covered over as meadows. The surrounding coal camps became ghost towns.

The energy and steel corporations were merciless. People were simply abandoned, discarded. They had to leave, or scrape a living any way they could.

Then, when they chose, these same coal companies sometimes opened and closed and reopened dozens of small operations at each location, with isolated crews, gouging around underground in the seams. Or else they switched to stripping the tops off the mountains with earthmovers, recklessly filling the hollers with refuse.

Similar stories are repeated across the coalfields from Alabama to Illinois to southwestern Pennsylvania.

Several major struggles to defend the union ended in defeats--at A.T. Massey in 1985, and Pittston in 1989-90--as coal operators mobilized both police and private armies of hired gun thugs.

One result of all this can be measured in the casualty figures: While the number of miners is dropping, the number of underground deaths has gone up steadily for three years, from 29 deaths in 1998 to 42 last year. The death rate for miners is seven times that of workers generally in the U.S. Meanwhile coal production per worker-hour doubled from 1986 to 1997, from three tons to six.

Not content with that, Bush appointee David Laurisky, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), called for a "change of culture" among federal mine inspectors--to make them more sympathetic to "business concerns."

In short, while the media praises high-tech "rescue capsules," the de-unionization and doghole-ization of mining has produced mounting danger.

Meanwhile, the capitalists have left behind the thousands of retired and disabled miners, using a simple financial trick: closing more and more of their union operations. After a quick change of paper ownership, the "new" operators claim it is "un-fair" to expect them to uphold the obligations of "previous" operators. In February 2002, the Supreme Court agreed, 6- 3--saying coal companies should be exempt from paying benefits to miners who retired from operations that were later absorbed in corporate mergers.

The lives of hundreds of thousands of widows, retired miners and disabled workers were casually tossed into turmoil. The average age of a union coal miner today is 50, a whole generation is facing retirement. Meanwhile, the capitalists are coldly tucking the promised pension money into their own pockets.

So: No, we are not "in this together."


During those long hours when those brothers were trapped below, I slept restlessly, sometimes waking up suddenly in the darkness, thinking of them sealed in by black waters, breathing that stifling air.

This same week, over 110 miners died in a methane explosion at Chengzihe mine in China's northeast coalfields. In the Ukraine 34 miners barely survived, and many didn't, when a fire swept their mine half a mile below the surface.

So when those nine men were hoisted into fresh air in Quecreek, my heart rose with them. Far too many have died over the years. It is wonderful to see them escape.

But the celebratory hugs of state officials and coal company owners were impossible to watch.

The dangers and sufferings of this dangerous industry are caused by a heartless system. And those dangers and suffering can be ended only when that system is overthrown and replaced.

Restless capital risked those lives in Pennsylvania. And tomorrow, ten million miners on the planet earth will again descend into coal mines--where capitalists will make outrageous new calculations about "acceptable risk" and "acceptable loss."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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