• U.S.

Once More into the Depths

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

When Jesus died, so the Gospels say, they shut him up in a cave. He descended into hell. On the third day, his disciples found the stone to his tomb rolled away. He had risen, defeated death, stepped from the darkness into the light.

When the families of 12 miners trapped in a Sago, W.Va., coal mine found out last week that their loved ones had not survived, after being mistakenly told that they had, it was a cruel inversion of the resurrection story. For about three hours, their husbands, fathers and sons were, in their minds, brought back to life. Then they died again.

The families’ grief and rage are hardly surprising. But it is not callous to wonder why—besides simple compassion—this story, like cave-in and child-down-a-well stories in the past, moved America to hold an electronic vigil. Soldiers are killed in Iraq, for instance, every week. They are no less brave, and their families grieve no less. But until the total reaches some grim round number, the stories recede from the front page and the top of the evening newscast.

Mining, however, is a different kind of danger, and its disasters take us not just out of our routine but out of our time. The men—and they are still mostly men—risk explosion or asphyxiation, to say nothing of cancer and emphysema, not for a principle or a geopolitical end but to put food on the table. They hark back to Dickensian, even prehistoric times, when making a living meant chancing death.

The reminder that some people still do this—and that heating our houses and charging our iPods depends on it—is even more arresting now that such tragedies have become rarer. Particularly when so many Americans work in sterile, comfortable, safe environments, attention must be paid to those who don’t. As the son of one dead miner told the New York Times, “He gave his life in there so I could go to the movies.”

Then again, on Sept. 11, 2001, almost 3,000 people died because they showed up at comfortable, safe jobs as secretaries, traders and flight attendants. For a brief cultural moment, 9/11 turned average Americans into coal miners; that is, it suddenly became plausible to ask, “If I die today doing this job, will it have been worth it?” But unlike the the horror of 9/11, when millions watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on live TV, a mine collapse is horrifying for the opposite reason: we see nothing and hear nothing. A group of men is either alive or dead and—in this age of GPS locators, instant messaging and Google Earth—thousands of feet of antediluvian rock stand between us and knowing their fate.

We are used to getting instant information, if not instant understanding, these days: we get mid-surgery updates on Ariel Sharon, we track hurricanes in real time by computer. But after the explosion at Sago, we knew little more than we would have had it occurred 100 years ago. The machinery of electronic media could only fill the airtime in useless agitation, finally exploding in a burst of false “Miracle!” reports.

Of course, the dread and frenzy around premature burial is not unique to the post-9/11 or Internet era; there was the Baby Jessica McClure well-rescue story in 1987. One of the first such media circuses happened in 1925, when spelunker Floyd Collins was trapped in Kentucky’s Sand Cave. The world was kept on tenterhooks, and 10,000 people a day, news reports said, showed up to gawk and picnic at the rescue site. After Collins was found dead, 17 days later, songs were written, and the incident became the basis for a musical, the Robert Penn Warren novel The Cave and the acerbic 1951 Billy Wilder movie Ace in the Hole, in which a small-town reporter hits the big time by exploiting a mine-rescue story.

Whatever role today’s anxieties and media play, the terror and fascination of entombment tap into something primal. To be trapped underground is to be not just in danger but separated from the world of the living. What is underground? It is where the dead are buried. It is where cultures have placed the underworld in their eschatology, where souls are judged and the wicked rent by monsters, boiled in oil or raked by demons over flaming coals.

And what are coal miners? People who descend into hell. People who dig into the devil’s backyard, where nothing lives, and bring forth something that burns as hot as Satan’s fire. One of the miners who died at Sago, Martin Toler Jr., wrote a note in his last hours: “Tell all I see them on the other side.” It was the last sentiment of a man whom family described as deeply religious. But it was also a simple metaphor for the daily hope of every worker who delves in those deep reaches: to rise again and see the faces they love once more. And the fervent wish—felt, in our direst hours, by even the most secular among us—to step from the darkness into the light.

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