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Donald Miller : The Dangers of Mining
Donald Miller The working conditions in the mines were horrific. You went into the mine early in the morning, five-thirty, six o'clock. And you descended into a deep void, an area completely devoid of light. Early on, miners used a lamp with a simple flame on the top, and if that flame went out for some reason, you were in a darkness that is much darker than if you stood in a dark room and closed your eyes. And no electricity in the mines. It's an exceedingly dangerous place. It's filled with a lot of water and water seepage. There's rats all over the place. The cribbage and cribbing that holds up the wood that holds up the top of the mine is creaking constantly under the tremendous weight, a thousand feet of earth and rock and stone right above you. No one could work there that had any feelings of claustrophobia. Every day you're dynamiting underneath that mountain of rock. And it made coal mining absolutely unparalleled in terms of the dangers involved.

Probably the thing that the miner most feared underground, aside from a cave-in, of course, where you died like a trapped rat and had to eat your own clothing and bark to stay alive, but the thing that the miner feared most, the ever-present danger was the danger of gas. There's a gas called methane and it's lighter than air, and it would move up into what they called the manway, the places, the small places no larger than, say, the size of a coffin, in terms of width and depth that a miner worked in. And so the methane would get up there and it was undetectable. The miner would have a lamp ahead of him trying to detect that gas, but if you failed to do that and took two or three whiffs of it, that could be the end of him, you know.

In a mine there's coal dust flying around all the time. You're breathing it all the time. It's filling your lungs, but it's also immediately dangerous, not just long-term dangerous for your health. One spark, one lamp goes off, any kind of ignition and that whole mine could turn into a roaring tornado. There were coal fires, for example, where entire series of coal cars, two and three cars coupled together, were flung in a tornado-like fashion through the mine for distances of up to a quarter of a mile. And miners caught with them, you know, kind of a tornado. That wasn't an everyday occurrence but it happened enough that miners were exceedingly aware of it. It's a combination of coal dust and gas. It's the gas in there, the methane, mixes with the coal dust and then flame to create this tornado type effect. Coal gives off a gas itself It's called "white damp" and that gas is odorless and it's impossible to see. So it's the combination of the dust in the air and the ignition occurs when it hits the coal, which is flammable and that hits the gas and creates this explosion.

In Pennsylvania there was a Bureau of Mine Safety and there were safety regulations. For example, early on in the industry, about mid-century, the British had developed a ventilation system where you had a way of ventilating the mine through two mine holes. And the Americans kept supply in one mine hole because of trying to cut costs. And a lot of miners, which fires broke out, were trapped like rats in the mine. And there were several catastrophic mine disasters. This led to a situation whereby the end of the 19th century most of the coal owners were forced to put in an extra safety ventilation tunnel in the mine. Other than that, a mine inspector would tour the mine in the morning every day to make sure that the area that the workers were working in was free of gas. But oftentime the inspector -- I'm not talking about a state inspector -- I'm talking about a local inspector -- that very inspector worked for the company. So oftentimes miners were sent in under some pretty dangerous situations and conditions.

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