Even those who have done the dangerous work of mining can only imagine what the 33 men are going through in Chile
By Ken Capstick (NUM & SLP)
Guardian 25th August 2010.
The 33 miners trapped below ground in Chile’s San José mine since 5 August are suffering the worst nightmare of miners the world over, who will be sharing their pain and that of their families, desperately hoping the rescuers succeed.
I spent 38 years of my life working as a coalminer and many long hours underground. I will never forget leaving school and jumping for joy – we said it was “the end of bondage”. I was 15, it was Easter 1956. Normally we would get a week’s holiday – I got two days and then found myself feeling imprisoned in what seemed worse than any dungeon. Deafening noise, constantly moving machinery, little light with which to see, grimy surroundings and hard physical work was my lot in life.
I was out of bed by 4.30 in the morning, trudging to the pit with my father; weather conditions, however bad, never stopped him or most miners. Men would crush on to the cage, as it was known, and then there would be a sudden plunge into the shaft as it hurtled for almost half a mile into the depths of the Earth. The bricks of the shaft wall were just a blur – four Blackpool towers end-on-end would just about reach from top to bottom.
I would start work at 6am and work until 1.30pm. Looking back now I realise how dangerous it was. At the end of the shift I would wash in the pithead baths and catch the bus in the pit yard, known as the pit paddy, which circled the mining village and dropped everyone off near their homes. Mother had the dinner on the table. I often fell asleep eating it.
I finished my first five days, Monday to Friday, in what seemed like a year. Saturday was voluntary in those days. I told my father I wasn’t going. He told me I was.
There was constant danger, and supervision by older miners was essential. They took care of you, but not in a mollycoddling sort of way – it was rough justice if you didn’t do as you were told, back-chatted or got “too big for your boots”.
I became an electrician and worked in every part of the mine. It was regarded by other miners as a cushy number. It was, but only by comparison with the work they did. Conditions were often cramped, crawling on hands and knees, breathing foul air, coughing and spitting out black coal dust from deep in your lungs.
Miners didn’t suffer fools gladly: coalmining was harsh. Conditions could be freezing cold or boiling hot in different parts of the same mine. Miners worked often on their bellies, using a pick and shovel all day, doing crushingly hard work. They ended up with bronchitis and emphysema, industrial deafness, broken limbs, dust on the lungs and were called greedy by people who could never understand. And we have had our share of disasters that have killed hundreds of miners in the time it takes to say, “Look out”. Sometimes they would be torn to bits after being dragged into brutal machinery, quite literally carried out in bags like chunks of mincemeat. It would be announced in passing on the news.
I once helped to carry a friend out of the mine. He was dead. He had been buried by a large fall of ground. We worked feverishly to get him out. That was 40 years ago. I laid a wreath at the altar in memory of him recently. It never goes away.
Eight miners have died in Britain’s coalmines in the past four years.
www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/sense_of_place/lofthouse_colliery_disaster.shtmlan inrush of water killed seven. Their comrades worked for a solid fortnight before being forced to leave them buried where they died.
Miners depend on each other for their own safety, which creates an unbreakable bond of camaraderie. Some might find it strange that a coalmine echoes to the sound of laughter. If I miss anything, it is the humour.
A miner is a miner wherever he works. Sometimes I spent 18 hours at a stretch in a coalmine, but can only imagine what it must be like for those fellow miners trapped in the unimaginable darkness of the San José gold and copper mine.
Leadership will be a vital element, someone experienced who they trust and respect, with the authority and mental strength to maintain his own morale as well as that of the others. I have met many men of that calibre. And in San José, 670 metres underground, it seems a natural leader has emerged – 54-year-old shift foreman Luis Urzúa.
If you have ever called a miner greedy, say a prayer with me tonight for those in Chile who, if reports are accurate, look like being there until Christmas.