Back Home: Death in a Coal Mine

I was saddened this week to read about a young man getting killed in an accident at a coal mine in my home county back in southern Illinois. It brought back memories for me. When most people think about coal mines, they usually think about West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. I’ve learned that many people don’t realize that southern Illinois has one of the richest coal mining veins in the United States.

I can remember as a young boy going to spend the night at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house and Grandpa coming home from finishing the 2nd shift. He’d wake me up so I could join him for a midnight snack in the kitchen: Pringles and a bottle of cold Mountain Dew.

My Grandpa is in the middle.
My Grandpa is in the middle. Grandpa would shower before our “midnight snack” in the kitchen.

I also remember in grade school getting news of a classmate’s Dad being killed in the mine. One of my Dad’s best buddies had his face crushed in mine accident. Several surgeries were required to reconstruct his face. One of my best friends spent several weeks in a hospital recuperating after nearly dying in a coal mining accident.

But perhaps the most dramatic story I can tell happened long before I was born. My Uncle Pete (my Grandpa’s older brother) changed shifts at Orient #2 in our home county just days before a mine explosion killed 119 of the 255 miners working that very shift. My understanding is that in the area where Uncle Pete had been working there were no survivors.

My friend Jim Muir spent 20 years working in the coal mines and now has spent several years as a journalist. He wrote a moving piece yesterday as a reflection on Mr. Payne’s death.

Here’s a portion of that piece:

I know about riding a ‘cage’ 600-feet into the ground and about the feel and smell of the damp, dark recesses of a coal mine. I know about swing-shifts, rock falls and about trading the ability to breathe fresh air for a paycheck. I know what it feels like to change clothes next to a fellow miner at midnight and laugh and talk with him only to learn that he was killed in a rock fall three hours later. I know about the eerily quiet, subdued feelings that are present when miners return to work on the shift following a fatality. I know what it feels like to work in the exact same section of a mine where only hours before a young life had been snuffed out. “

Coal mining tragedies usually make the national news when several miners are killed. What’s not reported nationally are the many single incidents. It is a dangerous profession. These men earn their money.

A few nights ago, at “ManDay Night” at Harvest Jacksonville, we watched a video of an excellent message by my friend longtime friend Darrin Patrick, who grew up just a few miles away from me in the coal rich country of southern Illinois. He talked about how some men love their job and make it their identity.  He also talked of how other men hate their job but do it because it puts food on the table. I suspect most men who go 600 feet underground to breathe air filled with coal dust don’t do it because they love it. They do it because they love their families and the pay is good (as it should be).

 

I wonder if coal miners think more about eternity than the average American worker. They certainly face the reality of their mortality more than most. I hope they do. The death of a young husband and father back home in a coal mine certainly reminds me of the urgency of the message of the Gospel of Jesus. I hope it does the same for you.

 

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5 thoughts on “Back Home: Death in a Coal Mine”

  1. Thanks, Brett! I’m a Southern Illinois coal miner’s daughter! I come from 3 generations of coal mining, on both sides of my family. My uncle was killed in an explosion in the mine. My father took me down in the mine a few times. The reality of that industry is still in mind. I still have cousins who work in the mines. Mining is one of the most important legacies of our family. Proud. Strong. Perservering. Loyal. Caring.
    I remember walking through the snow to the “coal” house to shovel coal for our coal burning stove inside. It was a difficult life….but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!
    On Mother’s Day Jonathan shared with me a song he had written about the coal. I’ll try to share it with you.
    Thanks for the memories!! :-)

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