Thursday, January 05, 2006

Method of Extraction

Early Monday morning, an explosion trapped 13 men inside a West Virginia mine. Rescue crews spent the next two days drilling; and although air quality samples on Tuesday indicated toxic levels of carbon monoxide, families prayed for a miracle. For three hours late Tuesday night, that miracle seemed to have arrived: Word traveled from the command center that 12 men had been found alive. In fact, a report from the rescue party had been misinterpreted: The men had been discovered approximately 13,000 feet inside the mine entrance, apparently asphyxiated by carbon monoxide.

In writing about industry, I've often cracked, "It could be worse — you could be shoveling coal." I like the phrase, although I've said that I think the effect is lost on New England audiences, for whom coal mining is a relic from fourth-grade social studies textbooks. When kids around here mull possible career paths, "coal miner" simply isn't mentioned; it almost doesn't occur to us that anyone actually does that. That's why I use it.

New York City just recovered from a three-day strike by transit workers. Strikes emerged as a powerful tool for workers during the industrial revolution, when factories and mines subjected workers to abject, unsafe conditions for less than a living wage. Today, union fat cats blow the strike whistle to negotiate for inflated pensions and benefits.

There's a recurring theme in science fiction of the complacent society relying on machinery it's forgotten how to operate. Life aboard an offshore oil rig or in a Pacific Northwest lumber camp is outside the grasp of many Americans' imaginations. We need to be reminded that, while the media harps on the dangers of terrorism and shark attacks, too many of our countrymen succumb to mundane perils from a past that haunts our present.

An investigation has already begun into the Sago explosion; but tomorrow morning, miners in 27 states will return to work to produce the coal that generates more than half of the electricity used in the United States. It's a job we need, an industry this country leans on; yet we tend to forget them. We need to remember: Beneath the din of our cell phones and wireless internet, the machinery we've forgotten continues to hum.


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