The first decade of the second millenium had just expired, Robert Lewis Johnson was in his fifties and just about ready for retirement. If asked what he did for a living, he’d usually quip, “I’ve gone over the hill, now I’m going to seed and not that far from being planted”. He’d worn many hats in his working years–starting out as a welder, then a mechanic, then an electrician for the Hopper Mine, in Red Jacket, West Virginia.
In 2015, Rob became a fire boss working in what folks called a “truck mine”. These wildcat operations that cropped up when coal prices were high. They’d go after seams as tight as 30 inches. This meant every bit of work was done from a semi crawl or prone position. They’d hit a section where gas was abundant and the work had ceased awaiting the green-light from Rob. It was the fire boss who kept the mine clear of volatile gases like methane.
On one fateful occasion, Rob’s meter indicated gas seepage from a fracture that cut across the entire face of the coal seam. The manager had tried to push him into resuming operations before the gas had cleared to safe levels. Rob quit on the spot.
Days later, at the same mine, several miners were killed by an explosion and fire and the operation was closed down. This was how Rob became known as a man of integrity and contrary to the demonic portrayals of mining companies, there were some that were more than willing to hire good men. He went to work for a larger, more mindful operator and was likely responsible for saving numerous lives.
After 4 years of fire bossing, Rob grew tired of deep mines and frankly he’d a bad feeling his luck was going to run out. So, he took a job driving a huge dump truck at a surface mine.
His rig was a monstrous 4000 horsepower Caterpillar D797 that hauled up to 400 tons and by itself, weighed over 287 tons. To get up to the cab, you had to ascend a six foot ladder and then a flight of stairs to the landing and step through the door. A new 497 cost five million dollars; the tires were over thirteen feet tall and they themselves cost over forty thousand dollars each.
It had been a messy week of springtime rains, but then, a bright day came along mixed with clouds and sunshine. Rob was at the end of his fourth run backing up his rig to dump its load at the top of a deep valley fill. He knew the ground was soft and was easing the D797 back slowly. The automatic backup warning signal was beeping. The tires sank just a little. No big deal. He thought.
When the back end of the dump bed was over the edge, he pushed the transmission selector into dump mode. All brakes were engaged. He then flipped the safety bar and pulled the hoist control backward. Up to this point, everything was nominal–the gauges, the pitch indicator, the hydraulics. The dump bed tipped backward and began spilling its contents.
A warning signal buzzed and Rob saw the red brake monitors blinking, in a split second, the rear wheels were skidding toward the edge as the dump bed was at its highest arc. The rig was going over. He slammed a large green button on the side of the console desperately hoping the release of pressure would cause the bed to pitch down and stabilize the truck enough that he could engage the gears and drive forward. Instead, another warning signal erupted in the cabin as the pitch indicator moved off the scale and the entire rig began to rise up like some ancient prehistoric behemoth. There was a terrible sound of torquing metal as the bed tried to wrench itself away from the chassis.
The sound reverberated to surrounding workers who looked up to see the spectacle of a 287 ton vehicle teetering on its very back wheels over a 2000 foot deep precipice. Slowly, the center of gravity shifted. The massive bed struck the slope with a thunderous metallic boom. It slid for a few hundred feet as it gained momentum, struck a large boulder and flipped violently into a series of rolls and cartwheels. The sounds were deafening and horrific. A trail of rock dust traced the rig’s path of devastation. Parts of the rig were strewn along the way. A smokestack. a door, engine parts, and parts of the stairway and handrails. What was left of the hulking machine had finally come rest at the bottom of the slope, resting on the driver’s side.
All the workmen who’d heard the booming sounds, ran toward the precipice. There was a dense cloud of dust rising from the entire area. Some of the miners who’d not seen the incident, thought there’d been an accidental explosion. The operations supervisor sprinted out of a white office trailer, phone in hand. “Get the rescue squad up here NOW! We gotta rollover!!!” He shouted as he ran.
Approaching the edge, they peered down at the scene. There was still a plume of dust hanging in the air and but for the drone of distant machinery, it was an eerily silent aftermath. There were utterances of disbelief and shock, hats were removed, heads shook, some choked back tears and commenced to clearing their throats. A warning claxton went off at the check-in trailer behind them. All work was to cease, and men were to pay careful attention to instructions on their two-way radios. The men stood at the edge of the precipice like somber pall bearers at the edge of a grave.
And a grave it surely was. There was no escaping a cab that tall and no amount of safety harnessing or seat belts would preserve a human body from such shattering impacts. The g-forces involved simply could not be tolerated. One sharp-eyed worker remarked that the glass in all the windows and windshield was gone. Some had seen this before on rare occasion; others had heard about such accidents. None had ever ended well.
Then, a moan from 20 yards down the hill broke the deathly silence. A few of the onlookers jumped. “Ahhhhhhhh! Ahhhhhhhnnnnn! Somebody!” They looked to their right and saw that beside a boulder, mostly camouflaged in dust and gravel lay Rob Johnson. He’d apparently sensed his predicament, had somehow made it out of the cab and jumped off the three story platform onto a jumble of rip rap and boulders. And now he was just coming to.
“We need water and a blanket now!”, the head man, Marty, yelled at no one and everyone. He looked down the slope and shouted, “Hang on Rob! Hang on buddy! We gotcha help! Just hang on! Just stay put, Rob.”
“Hey, Marty,” Rob said, his senses reviving. He cleared his throat and quipped, “Where you think I’m gonna go? Myrtle Beach?” It was an old joke that everyone in the county longed to make that vacation trip to the coast of South Carolina.
Rob remained still and began a damage inventory. He couldn’t feel his right leg. It had absorbed most of the impact and had shattered in so many places it had surpassed pain to just not being there. His back hurt like hell but he could move all other appendages except for the one leg. He could feel blood from the side of his head oozing down across his left cheek. Not too bad. He felt a giddy sense of relief knowing how things might have–even should have–turned out. Then, like someone flipping a switch on an old-time movie projector, there was a flicker and everything faded to black.
Hearing Rob’s voice and feeble jest, Marty and his crew were buoyed by relief. But when Rob passed out, it drove the point home that he might not make it. Marty refused to give up hope. “OK, he’s just gone into shock. He’ll be OK. Where the hell is that blanket and water??? And where’s the goddamned EMS?”
Someone from behind shouted, “Coming!”
Marty edged down the slope at an angle so as not to dislodge any rocks on top of the victim. A couple of other men were close behind carrying several jackets and a gallon jug of water. A siren was heard in the distance. When Marty came to Rob’s side and saw how badly his worker, his friend, was hurt, his heart dove. Rob’s eyes were shut. He was mostly covered in grey dust; he had a very nasty head wound, and his right leg was cocked at an impossible angle. This went way beyond basic first aid training and Marty knew enough not to move a victim in Rob’s broken condition. He put his two fingers alongside Rob’s neck and felt a faint pulse. “We gotta get him up the hill!” But how?
Then he remembered the crane just over the knob. “Get that Terex over here! Now! Goddammit!”
Rob momentarily returned to consciousness as he felt his body being slowly lifted onto a flat surface, something stiff was wrapped around his neck, straps tightened around his waist and shoulders, and then a kind of swaying motion as the crane, brought into makeshift service, hoisted him up and slowly rocked him high in the air.
His eyes opened slightly and he saw the billowed clouds gracefully moving in layers across the deepest blue sky. It was all so so beautiful. He felt as if he were a swaddled babe gently rocking into heaven cradled by angels. An onrush of rapture washed over and through him. He felt peace, a knowing that all was well. Tears flowed like warm honey down his temples – not born of pain, but of total amazement at the intensity of what was happening. The clouds grew more defined, he could make out every curve and shadow, he could almost feel them moving inside him. Once more, there was that wavering and flickering of light and the projectionist switched off.
Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.