Monday, September 5, 2016

A Lonely, Needless Death in the Dark

photo: entrance to the keystone no. 1 mine
Clay Epperly will never leave the Keystone No. 1 mine.
Mines are dangerous places. Anyone who's lived in mining country knows that - the occasional headline about an accident, injury or death hundreds of feet below ground is distressing but unsurprising news.

Unfortunately, sometimes these news stories don't even concern an actual miner. They're written about regular people who willingly choose to enter mines long shut down and abandoned.

Such was the recent case of 30-year-old Clay Epperly of Keystone, West Virginia. On the evening of August 29, 2016, Epperly and three friends ventured into a mine owned by Bluestone Coal that had been closed since 1987.

Epperly became separated from the others, who exited the mine and then returned in the predawn hours of August 30 to search for him. Their hunt was unsuccessful.

An anonymous call around 11am that morning brought law enforcement officials to the scene. Upon arrival they encountered Epperly's three companions, who were in some distress from breathing the bad air inside the mine. They were allowed to leave after being given oxygen.

It was immediately apparent the four men had been up to no good. The mine entrance was sealed with a double wall of cinder block and concrete, which had then been covered by a mound of earth. The men had dug away the dirt and broken through the wall with heavy tools. These were not people out to satisfy simple curiosity.

What, you may ask, could be inside an old, worked-out mine to entice anyone to forcibly break into it? Quite simply, the lure of copper wire and other potentially sellable materials left behind when the mine was shut down.

Keystone is located in McDowell County, the most economically depressed county in West Virginia. Unemployment is rampant. In a place with no opportunities and a dim future, the chance of being able to lay hands on something that could be easily stolen and resold sometimes proves to be an irresistible temptation to someone in dire financial straits.

As the search for Clay Epperly progressed, more details surfaced. The four men had broken into the mine, wearing old oxygen masks, in a quest to steal copper cable. Their masks weren't functioning properly. Epperly, disoriented from the foul air in the old mine, vanished into the gloom.

Despite an extensive search, rescuers found no sign of Epperly. On the afternoon of Thursday, September 1, authorities announced that no more recovery efforts would be made due to the poor conditions inside the mine. The entrance would be guarded around the clock until it could be resealed.

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.

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