|Clay Epperly will never leave the Keystone No. 1 mine.|
As I write this it's now been nearly 4 days since rescue officials essentially declared Clay Epperly to be dead. Discussion of the topic has been heated - his family and friends are understandably upset, while authorities seek to justify their decision.
No one wants to bid a final farewell to a loved one, especially someone as young as Epperly, a former coal truck operator with two small children. It's even more difficult when there's no chance of recovering his body in order to give his family and friends a sense of closure. Therefore, it's important to examine this sad story in the dispassionate light of reality.
Active mining sites are dangerous enough... an abandoned mine is much worse; nothing more than a death trap with a host of deadly surprises awaiting anyone who enters.
Merely breathing the air in an old mine can be fatal. Mining people talk about the "blackdamp" that steals the breath; this is a real and deadly thing. The remaining exposed coal seams in an abandoned mine absorb oxygen from the air and release water vapor and carbon dioxide. Blackdamp has no odor, so the victim has no warning until they begin to experience oxygen deprivation.
If the blackdamp doesn't choke you, chances are pockets of methane, nitrous oxide or another deadly gas will. These gases are common in active mines, too, but operating mines have elaborate and powerful ventilation systems that continuously pump fresh air into the vast network of tunnels.
As support beams rot and roof or shaft walls fracture over time, cave-ins are another hazard. Vibrations from the simple act of speaking, or even brushing against a deteriorated support, can cause tons of rock to come tumbling down.
Dynamite inadvertently left behind is extremely unstable. As the dynamite ages, it sweats nitroglycerin, which can explode upon being touched or stepped on
Pools of water or piles or debris can conceal holes in the floor. Water can also accumulate at the bottom of a shaft and pose a drowning hazard.
Yet Clay Epperly, Steve Cordle, Brandon Collins and Justin Bolen decided to take their lives into their hands, in the hope of possibly earning a bit of money. They were locals; they fully knew what hazards lay in wait as soon as they breached Keystone No. 1 Mine's entrance.
The cynical were quick to dismiss the four as dope-headed morons out to make some fast money to support their drug habits. The apologetic were just as quick to defend them as people willing to do anything in order to put food on the table for their families.
However, the actual reason behind their plan to take what didn't belong to them really doesn't matter. The real cause for concern should be why Clay Epperly and his friends obviously valued their own lives so little.
People in dire straits will do foolish things. Most people have an innate need of self-preservation, though. Walking eyes wide open into a situation that could take your very life, just to earn a few paltry dollars, defies logical explanation - no matter how desperate your financial circumstances.