A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner

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In honor of Labor Day, producer Adam Burke offers an audio portrait of a day in the life of coal miner Troy Atwood. He's been a miner since 1977 in the Rocky Mountains.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

We are continuing to follow two major stories on today's show: the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice of the Supreme Court following the death of William Rehnquist on Saturday. We'll hear more on both those stories throughout the program.

First, we do want to acknowledge that today is Labor Day, the holiday, with an audio portrait of an American worker, a coal miner named Troy Atwood. Just the term coal mining brings to mind images of brawny men crawling through narrow mine shafts with picks and shovels. But modern coal mining is a highly automated enterprise. Entry tunnels to the mines are so big now they can accommodate heavy machinery and very large vehicles. In the Rocky Mountains near Paonia, Colorado, Troy Atwood works for Bowie Resources which produces five million tons of coal each year. Producer Adam Burke hitched a ride into one mine in a truck with Troy Atwood driving.

(Soundbite of truck)

Mr. TROY ATWOOD (Coal Miner): You can feel boxed in down here, I guess. I think I've done it long enough, I don't even think about it anymore. I just come down, and it's just a road down in a whole anymore to me. You know, come down, do your job and get back out to the family.

Back over in the other mine, we had a real bad section, some of the scariest work I've ever done for two years. It--you was drained after an eight-hour shift because of the adrenaline rushes. I mean, I don't know, you could have called us adrenaline junkies at one time, I guess, 'cause we kept coming back and doing it again, and there was days you brushed death a couple times a day down digging the coal and pulling the pillars and pulling the pillars. And you'd stay at a pillar until you made a cave. And there was some days they'd chase your butt right out of there.

(Soundbite of door closing and distant pounding)

Mr. ATWOOD: My name's Troy Atwood. I've been in coal mining since 1977. I've been working at Bowie Resources since January 5th in 1998.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Mr. ATWOOD: The deepest mine I was ever at was out in Utah, and it was seven miles down to the face where you went to work for the day.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Mr. ATWOOD: When you first hired, back in '77, they usually put you out buy doing the grunt work, setting timber and support work and whatnot. And then about six months later is when they sent us to the face, and you was down there actually mining the coal.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Unidentified Man: Back it up.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Mr. ATWOOD: Then I eventually got put on the continuous miner, and done that for about eight years, and that was real interesting, down there cutting the coal.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Mr. ATWOOD: Continuous miner is a machine they set up that's what actually makes the entries for us. It digs the tunnels. It's all remote control, and it weighs right at 50, 60 tons. The conveyor's a yard wide.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Mr. ATWOOD: You can load 12 tons of coal in 18 seconds if you're set up and know what you're doing. And it's quite the machine. It can take a beating, and you back it out, clean it off and go on a-cutting again.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

Mr. ATWOOD: If you're not fond of cold weather, rain and all that, working in it, you can get away from it down here.

You haven't seen darkness yet until you get down there by yourself or with somebody and with no lights or illumination anywhere and you shut your camp lamp off. There's no other darkness that's that dark that I've ever seen. It's not for everyone. I work three 13-hour shifts, and it's a long day, and that's a long time to be underground. And it's three days a week, and four days off, and that's what a lot of these guys look at. That's what I look at. Within a week, you can tell if somebody's going to work out or not, because the look in their face. They're not going to be a coal miner, or they are.

CHADWICK: Coal miner Troy Atwood's story was brought to us by producer Adam Burke.

(Soundbite of mining activity)

I'm Alex Chadwick. More in a moment on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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