Accident Sheds Light On Miners' Dangerous Lives

A deadly explosion in a West Virginia Coal mine struck just weeks after the mining industry celebrated it safest year ever. The accident has raised new questions about the dangers miners face during every shift. GQ's Jeanne Marie Laskas, former miner Paul Rakes and Ohio Mine Safety Manager Jerry Stewart describe what it's like to work in a mine.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Earlier this week, an underground explosion took the lives of 25 men in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, the deadliest coal mine accident in 25 years in this country. Four men are still missing, and work continues to drill holes to vent methane and coal dust from the shaft to allow a rescue effort.

At this point, finding them alive may seem like a long shot, but on Monday, we also heard that 115 miners were pulled to safety in China after being trapped underground for more than a week. Twenty-nine miners remain missing there.

Mining is dirty, difficult and dangerous. Aside from moments like these, we rarely think much about what it takes to work underground, what it's like and what miners actually do.

So if you have done it, call. Tell us what your job is like, and what about your job what it is about your job that the rest of us don't understand, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, novelist Christopher Moore joins us to talk about the fiction dodge, but first, the life of miners. and we start with Jeanne Marie Laskas, a correspondent for GQ magazine and a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. She joins us via Skype from her home in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. JEANNE MARIE LASKAS (Correspondent, GQ): Nice to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And back in 2007, you accompanied a coal-mining crew in Cadiz, Ohio, to try to find more about that job and the lives of miners for an article in GQ called "Underworld." Tell us about that first time you went down.

Ms. LASKAS: The first time I went into the mine, well, of course I was scared. You know, you're going 500 feet down an elevator shaft. But I was more I mean, it's just so fascinating that you kind of get past the fear pretty quickly because the elevator doors open up, and the whole thing is white, which is the first shock.

That's because of the rock dust that they spread on every surface in case of explosion. That keeps it from exploding. But the freaky thing is not so much going down, it's what happens next, which is you get in a little car, and you travel, you know, several miles in a tunnel, away from the mine shaft. The in part is very troubling because you're far away from your escape, far away.

CONAN: And going further and further away every minute. How fast do those cars go?

Ms. LASKAS: Those cars didn't go that fast. I mean, there's it's not a car with a hood on it or anything. So they're you know, you feel the wind. You feel the wind, maybe, I don't know 10 or 15 miles an hour. They kind of creak along in this tunnel where everything is sort of just barely looks like it's barely standing up.

I mean, there's no aesthetics. It's not supposed to look good. It's just supposed to work. So you hope it does.

CONAN: Is it cold?

Ms. LASKAS: It's about it's year-round I think the mine I was in year-round was about 60 degrees. There's no weather down there.

CONAN: No weather, of course not.

Ms. LASKAS: Yeah.

CONAN: And is it wet?

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. Certain areas would be there would be leaks here and there, and that would just depend, you know, obviously it would depend on the topography and what they were hitting as they were mining. They're trying not to hit the water.

CONAN: What did it smell like?

Ms. LASKAS: It's actually, you know, the air factor was fine because this mine was functioning perfectly. It smelled it smelled it smelled like air. I mean, it really wasn't bad. It didn't stink, and when you got to the face of the mine, which is right where they would be actually taking the coal, you know, you would definitely smell methane, and that's the danger spot.

There is, you know, methane everywhere, but you have you have sort of wind being pushed through to sweep the face of the mine and get rid of that methane.

CONAN: And I guess a lot of us have the impression that this is hard, physical labor.

Ms. LASKAS: It's incredibly hard physical labor. We do think that, and we should think that, and it's even harder than we think. The mine I was in was about five feet tall. So you could never stand up if you were taller than five feet tall, which everybody was.

CONAN: Most everybody is, yeah.

Ms. LASKAS: Yeah. In this case, all these coalminers were, and we walked, you know, well, they call it a duck walk: You lean over, put your hands behind your back, and you just sort of march along until you hit what's called a glory hole, which I thought was wonderful.

All of the sudden, the roof was sort of opened into a dome, and everybody stands up and stretches their back, and they say oh my God, this is great. And then you find out that the reason this is here is because it caved in. So you're at a place where the top is not very top is not very strong at all. So it's not really that comforting, but it does help the back a little.

CONAN: It does help straighten out the cricks in your back a little bit. And they use machines, obviously, to take the coal from the face.

Ms. LASKAS: Yes. There's a now this is room and pillar mining, which is the same one that we're talking about in, I believe, in West Virginia. This is the sort of not long wall mining, which is a giant machine where there are not a ton of people down there, mostly the machine is just ripping everything out.

These are typically older mines, where there's still a lot of coal, and you kind of have to do it by hand like this. So the machines are quite small. They're moving, you know, almost like a drill bit, taking the coal, then plopping it on a little buggy, then the buggy takes it to a conveyer belt, and everybody, you know, all these guys have a different sort of specialty. Then you have a roof bolter, who bolts up the roof that you just dug coal out of.

CONAN: And how quickly does your face take on that ashy, that black, coal-dust appearance?

Ms. LASKAS: If you are at the face, it's pretty much immediate. You know, and even when you're eating your lunch down there, you're eating coal dust. I mean, you're you know, but they didn't mind. I mean, nobody minded that. They would say look, it's coal. It's clean dirt. It's clean dirt. It's not dirt. It's coal.

CONAN: We're talking with Jeanne Marie Laskas, who's a reporter, among other things, for GQ magazine and wrote a piece called "Underworld," about coal mining. 800-989-8255. We'd like to hear from you. If you've done that job, tell us what it is about your work that we don't understand. Or you can email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Curt(ph), Curt with us on the line from Boulder, Colorado.

CURT (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Curt, you're on the air, go ahead please.

CURT: Oh, this is the first time I've ever gotten on the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CURT: I just want to tell you, you know, I'm kind of an intellectual math scientist, and one of those things I want to tell you is that, you know, I was hired by the Colorado School of Mines to teach mine safety and ended up changing some federal legislation about it. And I want to tell you that we've got a bunch of mines that have what's called the methane jump. And do I need to explain that?

CONAN: Methane jump? Yes, I'm afraid you will.

CURT: Yeah, well, you know, there's some kind of coals that just sit there in the ground and just be silent, and there's I don't remember, you know, this is like from 30 years ago. But they just emit tons of methane. And the Western(ph) Virginia coal mines have that tendency, you know.

CONAN: Yes.

CURT: And the thing is that the Colorado coal mines, and I can't name them right now because I've changed my career into water purification chemistry, but, you know, the one thing (unintelligible) these mines work really well is to have what they call a safety incentive, which means that you get paid more for no damage to your personnel than production incentive.

CONAN: I see.

CURT: It's the way it's worked in the high mountains in Colorado, where we have some coals, just like what they have in West Virginia.

CONAN: Jeanne Marie Laskas, were you aware of safety incentives when you did your story?

Ms. LASKAS: Not so much definite incentives, although I will say to you that the concept of safety there is on everyone's mind constantly, all the time. I think that there's this misconception that they just sort of, like, hang out down there and dig.

I mean, it is everybody's first care, and it has to be. They all have friends who died a month ago. I mean, they are so used to mine explosions and mine cave-ins that that is the top, top, top concern of the bosses, of the foremen, of the workers, too.

CONAN: Joining us now from the road in Buffalo is Jerry Stewart. He's worked in mines in Ohio for over 30 years, and he's the mine safety manager for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Good to have you with us today.

Mr. JERRY STEWART (Mine Safety Manager, Ohio Department of Natural Resources): Thank you, it's good to be with you.

CONAN: And is that right: Safety is paramount on everybody's mind?

Mr. STEWART: Yes, it is. There are so many safety hazards that miners have to deal with every day that it has to be a top concern of everyone constantly.

CONAN: And is this part of the training process when miners get trained for the job?

Mr. STEWART: Yes, it is. New miners receive a minimum of 40 hours of training, some classroom, some in the mine, and they get a pretty good overview of the hazards that they need to look for. They receive an annual refresher training that covers all those topics but more briefly. They receive hazard training when they do new tasks. There's just a multitude of trainings that they are given.

CONAN: And nobody wants to jump to conclusions about what caused this explosion in West Virginia, we'll find out eventually, but the suspects are methane or coal dust, and does that sound right to you?

Mr. STEWART: Yes, what I've heard from the Federal Mine Health and Safety Administration, you know, and on the TV, that seems as though that is what took place, an explosion of some combination of gas or coal dust.

CONAN: And those are two of the things, I would think, that would be right near the top of anybody's training, safety training.

Mr. STEWART: Yes, there's a lot of training and time and effort goes into providing proper ventilation in a mine. That is designed to get rid of the methane gas, and the rock dust that the lady talked about a moment ago, the white dust that's on everything. The purpose of that is to hold the coal dust down and to make it inert.

CONAN: And are there I assume there are machines that can measure how much methane there is.

Mr. STEWART: Yes. A lot of the people that are underground have hand-held detectors that, you know, gives them a constant readout of what the air quality is, both methane and oxygen levels.

CONAN: So if we also heard a lot, I think it was the last disaster that was in Wyoming, I think, about the idea of putting safety rooms in these mine shafts. Is that something that is done?

Mr. STEWART: Yes, since 2006, when the Sago and Aracoma disasters took place, and Darby in Kentucky as well, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration put in some requirements that refuge chambers be put in all underground mines. And those are being put in right now. I believe that probably 100 percent of the mines have them.

(Soundbite of sneeze)

Mr. STEWART: Excuse me. There are different types, but those are put in. They're designed to sustain life for 96 hours.

CONAN: For 96 hours. Well, so there's still hope for these men in West Virginia, you think?

Mr. STEWART: Yes.

CONAN: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Stewart. We appreciate your time today. We know you're busy.

Mr. STEWART: Okay, thank you very much.

CONAN: Jerry Stewart, mine safety manager at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, worked in mines in Ohio for more than 30 years. We're talking about the lives of miners. Stay with us.

If you've done that, call and tell us what it is about your job that the rest of us just don't get, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Associated Press John Raby filed a story today that included profiles of some of the men known to have been killed in the explosion in West Virginia mine on Monday.

Carl Acord shared a big Easter dinner with family on his Sunday and doted on his infant grandsons, nine-month-old Chase and three-month-old Cameron, said his sister Sherry Cline. He was looking forward to riding them around on the tractor this summer, Cline said. He kept talking about that at Easter dinner.

Acord also enjoyed fishing with his two sons, 24-year-old Cody and 19-year-old Casey. Even though he was about 6 feet tall, everyone called Acord Pee Wee, which he hated. That was his nickname since he was a little tyke. It just stuck, Cline said.

Acord, 52, had worked in mines for 34 years and liked the work, Cline said. But he told his family on Sunday he was concerned about the mine's roof and worried about going to work on Monday.

And here's another one: Jason Atkins was born and raised in Boone County, near the coal mine where he lost his life, said his father-in-law, Rick Withers.

The 25-year-old miner and his wife, Amanda, 28, met when they were students at West Virginia Tech and got married in 2008, Withers said. Amanda Atkins could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Withers said he was not sure when Atkins began working at the mine. He was an hourly guy, Withers said.

Atkins played second base on his high school and college baseball teams but left West Virginia Tech without graduating, Withers said. He enjoyed golfing.

Just two of the men who were lost in the explosion in West Virginia on Monday.

Still with us is Jeanne Marie Laskas. She went underground with miners for a piece she wrote for GQ magazine. We want you to join us, as well. If you've worked underground, call and tell us what it is about your job the rest of us just don't understand, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Let's go to Lonny(ph). Lonny's with us from Fennville in Michigan.

LONNY (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Lonny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

LONNY: Yeah, I just I have two brothers that work in the coalmines in Kentucky. And my youngest brother, about five years ago, was killed in one of those explosions with the methane. And my question was: Is there a reason why they can't just pump a lot of fresh air in there to keep it really ventilated good? And that's kind of my thought on that. I just wondered, is that possible, or is that something they do, or is it...

CONAN: And we'll follow up on that in a minute, but your brother, Lonny, what did he tell you that explosion was like?

LONNY: Oh, well, he died.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry. Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I thought you said he nearly died. I'm so sorry to hear that, Lonny.

LONNY: Okay.

CONAN: All right, appreciate it. And Jeanne Marie Laskas, I know you're not a safety expert, but is there a reason that you know why they can't just pump a lot of fresh air through there?

Ms. LASKAS: I'm just confused. Does he mean now, in the mine now as they try and rescue, or does he mean in general?

CONAN: Or in general. In general I think is what he means.

Ms. LASKAS: Oh, in general they do. They do. There's a really complicated ventilation system that's, you know, it's just incredible. Basically, if you can imagine three tunnels. The one tunnel in the middle, that's the one you're in, where you're getting coal. Then there's one tunnel on either side of you that's pushing air sucking air through and blowing it out the other side. So it's constantly sweeping.

I mean, I imagine in any explosion, all that, you know, architecture is gone. So, you know, that's when it becomes, you know, if there is an explosion, that obviously fails.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jason(ph), with us from Paducah, Kentucky.

JASON (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jason.

JASON: How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

JASON: My dad was a coalminer for 20 years (unintelligible) I grew up with him working in the coalmines, and I just remember some of the stories. And my heart, first of all, goes out to the families of those miners. I remember as a child being worried, even as a child, being worried about dad coming home.

Some of the guys he worked with I knew that didn't make it home, and it's just a dangerous job. I remember he'd be out in the yard, working in the yard, and I'd ask him as a child what the scars were on his back, and he'd tell me they were roof-bolt scars.

He worked in a 48-inch seam of coal when I was a little, bitty guy, and I remember he told me that, you know, the coal seam wasn't much. The roof wasn't much higher than I was, and they walked on hammers. They used hammers for canes. And if you weren't paying real close attention, you'd hang your back on a roof bolt and tear your back open. Now, he had he still has scars from when he worked in there.

When I got older, I got out of the military, he actually took me down in the mine on a shut-down day and showed me around, and I decided then and there that I would rather take up a safer profession. I became a police officer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm not sure it's safer, but at least it's not quite so claustrophobic.

JASON: Right.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JASON: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And good luck to you.

JASON: Thanks.

CONAN: Joining us now from his home at excuse me, from his office at West Virginia University Institute of Technology is Paul Rakes. He's a third-generation miner who worked for 20 years in the West Virginia coal industry, now professor of history at West Virginia University Institute of Technology. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. PAUL RAKES (Professor of History, West Virginia University Institute of Technology): Thank you.

CONAN: And you were born in a West Virginia coal camp.

Mr. RAKES: Yes, sir. I was born in the coal camp of Scarborough, right here in Fayette County.

CONAN: And your dad and granddad before you were miners?

Mr. RAKES: Yes, both sides of the family.

CONAN: Both sides of the family. And that is that's true of a lot of mining, isn't it?

Mr. RAKES: It is. I suppose the best description of my making that decision was I was in college, studying to be a teacher, and I found out what my salary would be. I went home and asked my father what he made per year, and then I decided, well, why am I in college?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, the jobs have gotten a little more technical over time, though, haven't they?

Mr. RAKES: Oh, definitely. I was an electrician for most of my time underground, and just the technology of the machinery continually improved and became much more sophisticated. And I think that's one of the things that the general public doesn't understand about underground work.

It is it's fast-paced. There is a lot of activity. There is a lot of moving machinery, and one has to work both physically and be intellectually engaged in many areas.

CONAN: Intellectually it's not that is a bit of a surprise.

Mr. RAKES: Now, I know. Most people tend to think that mining is just brute labor. Now, technology has reduced a need for some of the old craftsmanship, but a good coalminer is always aware of the condition of the roof. He's aware of the signs that the roof is giving as to the possibility of an impending fall.

A miner has to be aware not only of the ventilation movement on his particular section but throughout much of the mine in case there is a problem so that he knows how to get out, if that is possible.

Certainly, those who deal with the breakdown of machinery have to apply mathematics and what I call fuzzy thinking sometimes to get things running again.

CONAN: I'm sure. With safety, as we've been told, being, of course, everyone's concern all the time, is it common, is it part of the culture, for miners to say: Wait a minute, I don't think we should press on here?

Mr. RAKES: I have to qualify this by saying I always worked in a union mine, and we had that right. We had the right to withdraw from the face if we considered something to be unnecessarily dangerous.

Now, did it happen a lot? No. Does someone have that right today? Legally, yes. Does one want to risk potential problems with their employer? That's unlikely. Usually, what will happen is if there is a truly unsafe condition that all the miners agree upon, at least in my experience, you as a crew, you get together and try to eliminate that problem.

CONAN: I wonder, Jeanne Marie Laskas, did this come up in your conversation with the miners you were down with?

Ms. LASKAS: That's so interesting to bring that up. Yes, in fact, it happened, and it was really the crew's decision to bail on a certain area because they all deemed it, you know, in this particular case, you know, this - they kept saying the top's bad, the top's bad. And the top did cave in a small area. That indicated to them that the rest may go.

And it was a matter of radioing, you know, up to the managers up aboveground, but there was no problem with, you know, pulling back from there. So that just, that just happened. I mean...

CONAN: That was not a big deal? They were not saying oh boy, are we going to get into trouble.

Ms. LASKAS: No. No.

CONAN: But Paul Rakes, I understand that's not always the case?

Mr. RAKES: No, I have been hearing stories, and of course that is secondhand, that in some cases, folks have felt let's say it is a borderline call, folks who felt it best not to say anything because of potential repercussions.

But and I'm not speaking of any specific mine. It's just some comments I've heard recently. I do think it's good to keep in mind that the mine coalmining, despite what has happened, has gotten a lot safer. The government told the industry in 1969: If you're not going to regulate yourself, we're going to regulate you.

And let me give you a couple of figures that demonstrate this, in a sort of language of science and math. From 1900 to 1968 in West Virginia - I'll give you some specific examples. Say, 1900, one miner in every 199 died on the job. And by 1908, we have one in 97, one in 163, a few other later - a few years later. One in 1968, 274. One miner, every 274 died.

Now, once the law - the 1969 law was put in place, by 1972 in West Virginia, it's one in every 1,004 miners. By 1989, it's one in 3,147 miners. So the technology, the safety technology that's been put in place, the enforcement has improved mining a good deal.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Allen(ph). Allen with us from Forest Lake in Michigan.

ALLEN (Caller): Forest Lake, Minnesota.

CONAN: Minnesota. I apologize.

ALLEN: But, again, I had worked - been in several coal mines down in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Utah. And I worked for the Pittsburgh and Midway Coal Company for 20 years. But the gentleman asked me, going underground, what was your major safety concern as an individual? And I told him that it was roof support. They have to roof bolt at all crosscuts to hold the roof in place. The mine has to have a roof bolting plan in place and the MSHA watches that very closely.

CONAN: The MSHA?

ALLEN: Pardon?

CONAN: Though that's the mine safety inspectors?

ALLEN: Right. Those are the people that are in there right now in this particular disaster, working with the management there.

CONAN: Okay. Allen, was this interesting work?

ALLEN: It can be very interesting. It's fairly complicated. The gentleman that talked before was quite right about a number of things. Your miners are quite well-educated. They work with electricity all the time, with diesel engines, with hydraulics. He's right about - in the equipment, moves very quickly. All of the equipment has to be explosion-proof. And...

CONAN: Hmm. And can't be generating sparks, yeah.

ALLEN: Yes. And one comment I would make about this explosion is that something had to kick it off, like a spark or something like that that ignited the methane. Once the methane went, it would kick up a lot of coal dust into the air and then, with the higher air temperatures, subsequent explosion and, you know, it just compounds the problem.

CONAN: All right. Allen, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ALLEN: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about the lives of miners.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guests. Jeanne Marie Laskas, a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, correspondent for GQ for which she wrote a piece called "Underworld" about coal miners back in 2007. Also with us is Paul Rakes, a professor of history at West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Reneese(ph) - I'm hoping I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Clarksville in Tennessee.

RENEESE (Caller): Yes. Thanks, Neal, for taking my call. First of all, my heart and prayers out to those in West Virginia. And the reason I'm calling, it's a wonderful subject. I happen to be one of those few female miners in the nation. And I really appreciate this topic because it's a it's a rough place to work and it is very dangerous. But for those of us that loved it - I really loved working underground.

I had the advantage of going to college for a while to work on an underground mining degree. And I worked in mines in Alabama and my last mine was in Price, Utah.

CONAN: And you love the job, why?

RENEESE: I'm a farm girl at heart, raised in a farm in a little rural town in Alabama, and I love the hard work. But the camaraderie - I mean, there was a lot of sexual harassment for us females because I worked in the mines where there were nine women and 250 men. And there were times where the sexual harassment was quite obvious.

But I worked with gentlemen - once you work - and when I was underground, which has been several years ago, it was considered taboo for women to be underground.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RENEESE: And a lot of men still took that as taboo and considered it bad luck. So there was actually - and I worked in what was called a pillar section. We were actually pulling the pillars from the mine and watching thousands and thousands of pounds of ground hit ground, basically, and we were underground. And there were some sections I was not allowed to work because there were some of the older miners that would not allow women on these sections.

CONAN: Paul Rakes, does that sound right?

Mr. RAKES: In terms of the females coming underground?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. RAKES: Yes, we actually lived through that period and was working underground when we were told that we would have to hire women miners.

There - it had become ingrained in miners' thinking that, yes, indeed, it was bad luck to have a female underground. And there were those among us who were resistant and probably not particularly friendly toward the new women miners. But they adjusted rather rapidly in most cases.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RAKES: I think it's - from a historical standpoint, it's good to keep in mind that the British brought the mining technology to America.

CONAN: And British sailors used to feel the same way too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKES: Yeah. Yeah. And so that was part of their thinking at the time and it just gets built into miner - mining culture.

CONAN: Reneese, thanks very much for the call. And I wonder, Jeanne Marie Laskas, you are obviously going underground. Was there any tinge of that left a couple of years ago when you were?

Ms. LASKAS: You know what, there wasn't. But I wasn't working. I can't say if there would be if I was working there. I mean, I clearly was there to observe them over several months. They were very - I mean, they were wonderful to me. But I don't know if it would have been if I were - as part of the crew. There were - I did meet one woman that was part of that mine, although I was not on her crew, but they are there.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Jeanne Marie Laskas at the University of Pittsburgh and GQ, joined us from her home via Skype in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. Our thanks, as well, to Paul Rakes, professor of history at West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

And work continues at the site of the mine in West Virginia to drill shafts to vent the gas out of there so a rescue attempt can be made. Thank you both very much.

Prof. RAKES: Thank you.

Ms. LASKAS: Thank you.

CONAN: When we come back, we're going to be talking about the novelist business with Christopher Moore. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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