Greene County man recalls last weeks in closing coal mine
CARMICHAELS — Ted Fink listened to the earth above him crack and buckle.
He'd stood there before, every working day for eight years, hundreds of feet below ground in Emerald Mine No. 1, just outside of Waynesburg. But he'd never before heard those sounds. The roar of great machines had always drowned them out.
Now the machines were silent. The coal miners who used to run them sat around makeshift tables, playing cards and killing time. They had hauled all the equipment out of the mine, torn up the railways and yanked out communication lines, but they still had weeks to go before their scheduled layoff date.
To get paid, they had to “cage down” into the mine and couldn't come back up until their shifts ended, even though there was nothing to do down there.
“You have a job and you pride yourself on it. You go in there and kill yourself and run around like a madman. And then it's like, ‘Meh, we're shutting down,'” Fink, 31, said recently as he sat in his dining room in this Greene County community..
Boxes and piles of papers surrounded him, the cumulus of his family's nine years in this green, two-story house, which they share with a small sewing shop. In the background, his youngest daughter, Gracie, 3, giggled. She was in the living room with her sister, Kylie, a quiet 11-year-old, and their mother, Jessica, 30.
He, Jessica and Kylie moved to Greene County from Florida in 2007, arriving with one suitcase apiece and Kylie's toys in his 2004 Jeep. The housing market in Florida had collapsed. Sales at the car dealership where Fink worked there dried up.
Jessica comes from a family of Western Pennsylvania coal miners, and her uncles and cousins told the couple they could help Fink get a job.
He worked that winter with a contracting company that handles non-mining jobs at coal mines, such as construction. On his first day, the foreman at the Enlow Fork mine handed him a trash bag and pointed to the ice-encrusted parking lot.
“Don't come back 'til it's full,” he said.
For four hours, Fink and another newbie kicked and chipped at the ice to gather the trash frozen beneath.
“I thought I was going to die, it was so cold,” Fink recalled, chuckling at the memory. “The guy next to me is like, ‘You're going to be fine,' and I'm like ‘No, I'm not. I just moved up here from Florida.'”
The job paid $10 an hour, not enough to cover his payments on the Jeep, which was repossessed.
But his wage rose to $18.50 when he began work at Emerald Mine in 2008. By the time he lost his job last November, he was earning $29 an hour.
Fink said he “did a little bit of everything” in the mine. His favorite, though, was running the continuous miner, a machine with a large, toothed drum attached to giant arms that grinds through the coal seam in front of it. Below that, a shovel-like base catches the falling coal and feeds it onto a conveyor belt, which ferries it into a bin behind the machine.
“You're constantly alert, you're constantly doing something ... You set your goal — 100 feet or whatever — and you try to reach it. Something will fall on top of the (continuous) miner and you end up trying to break it up,” Fink said.
You tried not to think about the rest, he said — how a piece of the roof could bury him, or a spark could trigger a blast and trap him in a cave made of fuel 650 feet below the sunshine.
His wages allowed Jessica to home-school Kylie. She, too, tried not to let her mind stray to the job's dangers, but a person can't love without worry.
“You know that they love doing their job and you want to support them, but you also know there's a good chance you're going to get a call in the middle of the night,” she said.
Fink saw a friend lose two fingers; they were still inside his work glove when he pulled his hand out. Several times, Jessica received that dark phone call telling her that her husband had been hurt.
The last — and worst — came in August 2013, when a section of the mine's roof collapsed on Fink and smashed his arm into the metal of the continuous miner. He didn't return to work until May 2014.
By then, mine owner Alpha Natural Resources was slowing production at Emerald. The miners talked of a possible closure. To Jessica, who grew up in a mining family, the rumors were nothing new.
“Guys had been hearing that for 20 years, that the mines are going to shut down, that they're going to start laying off at Christmas,” she said. “It wasn't really anything that we got concerned about.”
Then the notice came in August 2014 that Alpha would shutter the mine in late 2015. More than 300 workers would be affected, the company told the state Department of Labor & Industry.
Life underground changed for Fink and his coworkers.
“They did their job, but they weren't doing it with passion anymore. It took the wind out of them,” Fink said.
The last three weeks were miserable, he said.
The miners spent aimless hours in the mammoth coal mine, playing poker, gin and rummy, waiting for things to end — their shift, their job, the comfort of knowing what they'd be doing tomorrow.
The company began daily drug tests.
“They did end up getting a couple people. They figure, ‘Well, if we get guys then we don't have to pay their insurance or anything like that,'” Fink said.
Alpha laid them off on Friday the 13th, in November 2015.
By then, Fink had submitted dozens of job applications. Soon, dozens became hundreds. Jessica said she and her husband spent “hours online filling out applications, making phone calls, me updating his resume and getting a hold of any contacts that we had.”
As the miners' six months of unemployment insurance neared its end — it'll run out in May unless the federal government approves an extension — husband and wife talked about leaving.
They talked about Tennessee, where Jessica's mother and stepfather live. After three weeks of job-hunting near Nashville, Fink took a job with an auto-parts manufacturer, whose supervisors were impressed by the size of the machines he used to run underground.
The pay starts at about $13 an hour, less than he's making on unemployment. But his family will be insured, and after 90 days he might be up for a promotion and a raise.
Most important, it seems stable, a job that won't ever again make him tell Kylie she has to say goodbye to her best friend.
“We've had quite a few nights that we just sat around and cried, talking about people that we're going to miss and that we love, and just reassuring her that, no matter what, we're always going to be there,” Jessica said, her eyes wet and her voice trembling at the memory of her daughter's sorrow. “We're going to be together and we're going to make it work.”
They found a house to rent near Percy Priest Lake, in Smyrna, Tenn., and will split the rent with Jessica's mother and stepfather. They're paring down as they pack, sorting for the essential, trying to fit into the smallest-possible U-Haul.
“It's sad, because this place has been really good to us,” Fink said.
“But I can't ... I can't die with it.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.