The Pits

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The Pits

TAEBAEK, Gangwon The snow lies dull-gray in this hilltop mining town. When beads of thick sweat drop from coal miners’ faces here, when soot falls off miners’ clothes as they walk home from work, the white ground darkens. For Lee Hyo-seok, 43, a pitman in the Tongbo Coal Mine, dark colors .. dead grays and pitch blacks .. are a way of life.

Mr. Lee has been going into the 430-meter-deep mine since 1990. He breathes and wears coal dust for eight hours each day. On this afternoon as he walks toward the mine’s bathing room after his shift, he says, "I’ve got to get the hell out of here."

But of course that’s impossible, and when he gets home and sees his wife and four children, he knows it.

"I want to quit," he says, "but at the same time in my heart I know I cannot leave this place."

The Tongbo Coal Mine is not the sort of place someone where someone would want to live forever. Taebaek sits near Korea’s east coast and is a six-hourlong train ride from Seoul. Winters here are harsh. On this afternoon it’s minus-7 degrees Centigrade. Down in the mine, it’s 21 degrees, with 90 percent humidity. The smoke, from blasting the rock layers, is overwhelming. The pit is black, illuminated only by the dim headlights of plastic, yellow helmets. When the day’s work is done, around 5 p.m., Mr. Lee is so desperate for the bit of sunlight left that he nearly runs out of the clammy, dusty hole.

As he strides quickly, he passes two big wooden boards at the entrance of the tunnel. One sign reads "Increase Efficiency." The other says, "Safety First: Be on Your Guard." He reaches the bathing room with two coworkers, Son Jin-seon, 42, and Lee Seung-cheol, 49. They are his teammates, his best friends, and the first thing all three do, even before cleaning up, is to smoke a cigarette together, as if to celebrate one more day of survival.

The 450 employees here are teamed up by jobs: excavating, timbering, mining, caving, coal washing and dressing. Each team .. and there are dozens of teams involved in each job .. has one leader with one or two assistant miners. The Tongbo Coal Mine, which is run by the Hanbo Energy Co. Ltd., pays employees according to how much work they do, on top of a basic wage. Lee Hyo-seok leads a mining team made up of Mr. Son and Lee Seung-cheol. Their dedication and toughness has brought their team a nickname: the Invincibles.

The Invincibles’ job is caving, the most important and dangerous job there is. A caver gathers concealed residue coal from the walls and ceilings of tunnels, disposes of timbers and then retreats.

This day did not begin well for the three Invincibles. Before traveling deep into the pit at 9 a.m. on steel carts that run on rails, Lee Hyo-seok felt lousy. He had a headache. But he hates to miss work and knows his team counts on him, so in he went. His search for hidden, rich veins had not gone well in the far end of a 350-meter-deep shaft, supported by three timbers. At the very end of the day, after giving a final check to the area and scooping through the remaining coal, one of the timbers collapsed. Fortunately, he and his two buddies were able to flee the cave-in.

"You work best when you feel right," Mr. Lee says, taking off his miner’s mask. Only a small section of his face, from the ridge of the nose to his jawline, is not coated with soot.

The Invincibles this day were far luckier than another Tongbo miner had been Dec. 5. While excavating sandstone layers, rocks suddenly rained from the tunnel ceiling, instantly killing a 43-year-old miner.

"At least we get to see the sunlight, guys," Mr. Lee says. For the three, death is not news but merely another chapter in a tragic book that never seems to end.

Four coal mines operate in the Taebaek area, and three of them experienced accidents this year. On Oct. 30, an underwater drift broke in the Taebaek Coal Mine and claimed five miners who were caving. On Nov. 22, a gas explosion at the Dogye Coal Mine near Samcheok took the lives of four miners and left six seriously injured.

"We have more accidents around the holidays, when people get excited and then tend to be careless," says Jeong Gwang-sik, a manager at the Tongbo Coal Mine.

Some coal mine accidents, especially ones involving trapped miners brought out safely, such as occurred in the United States, in Pennsylvania, last summer, generate great coverage worldwide. An accident with a few fatalities receives little if any attention.

"When a miner or two dies, it’s just too common and trifling for busy folks out there," says Mr. Son.

"We should expect the unexpected," Lee Hyo-seok says. On Dec. 11, 1996, he endured the most unexpected .. and horrifying .. day of his life.

Back then Lee Hyo-seok was an assistant on a caving team. It was just another typical winter morning in Taebaek: A hard, incessant snow had fallen all night. On that day, Mr. Lee joined 15 other miners, who teased him for being the newcomer to the team. He looked forward to a good day with this highspirited, joking group.

Around 11:35 a.m., the team was about halfway finished, but the cart used to load coal had not arrived from the team that was there to gather coal.

"This is strange," one of the miners shouted aloud. "Hey you, newcomer! Go out and see what’s happening. It’ll be lunchtime soon and we could starve to death!"

Mr. Lee, respectful of his senior, ran from the shaft. When he took off, however, he heard an explosion from behind. By instinct, he covered his nose, closed his eyes and lay on his stomach. So new to caving, he didn’t have a mask that day. The blast was an underground water break, a burst of liquid mixed with coal that formed a furious, lava-like flow. It swallowed the 15 miners, Mr. Lee’s teammates, and they all perished. It nearly did the same to Mr. Lee but somehow crawled his way and out of the hell.

The following morning, the Taebaek police asked him, the only witness to the disaster, to accompany them into the pit. Body parts lay scattered around the site and nothing came out of Mr. Lee’s mouth except this: "I should have been one of them."

His good fortune bothered him for a long time. "Ever since, I’ve learned that coal miners in the pit never, ever speak of death."

All miners, no matter their job assignments, dress alike: yellow plastic helmet, dustproof blue plastic mask, headlight battery attached to a leather waist belt, sturdy dark blue cotton uniform, white cotton work gloves, black rubber boots.

It would be hard for an outsider to move easily in a mine shaft wearing a heavy outfit. And it takes an ultrapowerful detergent to clean those outfits each day. The uniforms, incidentally, are not worn proudly these days. Being a coal miner is at the bottom of the country’s social hierarchy.

Once, however, there was time when a miner’s uniform guaranteed success in life, when it brought great respect. In the 1960s and 1970s, when coal was Korea’s chief means of energy, and the industry was pushed by the government, there were as many as 43 active mines in the Taebaek area. Business boomed and coal miners did not need to pass any tests to go to work. A sturdy physique was the only requirement. Job-hunters swarmed to the Taebaek region, then a land so filled with opportunity people called it "Korea’s Texas." A saying went that there was so much money in Taebaek that even the dogs held 10,000 won bills in their mouths. As time went by, however, Korea began to rely less and less on coal and the market slowed. Today, coal mining in Korea is far from being a get-rich-quick business. Its reputation has been further worsened by the many accidents that occur and, at some mines, a money-driven strategy that puts safety second.

The government, once supportive, is now all too productivity-driven, which comes across as a big threat. A great number of miners have left Taebaek and many company-owned apartment houses are more than halfempty. The Coal Mining Industry Rationalization Committee, a government group, announced in September that the number of coal miners is on steady decrease. This year, about 6,600 coal miners are on the rolls, down from 9,700 in 1997. The peak year for mining was 1986, when 68,900 men suited up.

Mr. Lee survived a big layoff last year at the Tongbo Coal Mine last year, when the company let go of more than 400 miners, almost half of those employed. It’s not only a matter of numbers, though. Coal miners’ selfesteem has been hurt. Ryu Jae-in, the administrator of Tongbo Coal Mine, says, "Nowadays, it’s almost a disgrace to work in a mine. Everyone here wants to conceal what he does. No one brags about being a coal miner."

Coal, however, is still black diamonds to Mr. Lee and his two fellow workers. Lee Hyoseok, a native of Yeongju, North Gyeongsang province, formerly worked for a publishing company in Seoul as a plant engineer. After his wife gave birth to their second child, life in Seoul grew beyond the couple’s means. A friend suggested they look into coal mining in Taebaek. "Just three years," his friend said. "We’ll come back after that with a big fortune that will be enough to feed our family for the rest of our lives."

For Mr. Lee, those three years have come and gone four times. His friend could not stand the tough life and quit soon after they arrived.

"I just can’t leave," Lee Hyo-seok says, sitting in a small, plain restaurant a 10-minute-drive from the mine. Few days don’t pass that Mr. Lee and his team members aren’t sitting here, washing down the coal dust with soju. They drink with intensity and speed. "You know, there’s one thing that makes it hard to leave here," says Lee Seung-cheol. "It’s not the money; it’s you guys." He nods toward his two teammates. "The only place in he world where we can fit in is deep down in the pits."

About that money. The three men’s monthly salary is 1.9 million won (about $1,600), but after taxes, it’s a not-quite-ready-to-retire on 1.45 million.

After a bath, which always comes before the drinks, the men look different. Lee Hyo-seok says that his wife does not recognize him when he works. One morning, she overslept and forgot to have his lunchbox ready, which she later brought to the entrance of the pit and handed to a man on break. "Please give this to my husband," she said to the miner and went back home. She did not know that the miner was her husband.

Scrubbing hard in the bath has turned Mr. Lee’s eyes red. Mr. Son’s eyes are lined with black, as if he were wearing eye-liner. "It’s because of the dirt that just does not go away, no matter hard I rub," Mr. Son says, after emptying his soju glass. Deep black smudges decorate the arms, legs and necks of most coal miners. Fingernails seem permanently blackened. "It’s a miracle that we have survived so long," Mr. Lee says, "working in the dark."

About 8 p.m., the three are finally headed home. After dropping off Lee Seung-cheol, who arrives at his door in a wobbly state, Mr. Son stops to have a final round at Lee Hyo-seok’s house. Yoo Myeong-suk, Mr. Lee’s wife, is there baby-sitting, a part-time job that she does on top of looking after her own four children . three daughters and a son. Ms. Yoo does not like the idea of her husband mining, but she says there’s no alternative. "The company supports tuition fees for two children per one household, plus our apartment rent is paid for," she says. "That is why we have no other choice." The couple’s eldest daughter, Lee Heenan, 13, says she does not like her father’s job. "Not because it’s lowclass work but because he is always so tired when he gets home I can’t share my dream with him. My dream is to become a pop singer, like Mariah Carey."

Mr. Lee’s New Year’s resolutions long ago ceased to include leaving the pits. Rubbing his forehead, he says, "When you are stuck in a dead-end job, it’s hard to find a way out." After repairing his 7-year-old son’s yo-yo, Mr. Lee says, "But I guess I don’t have any regrets. After all, I’ve got a job."


Of the many deaths: ‘Nobody out there seems to care’

Coal mining is among the most dangerous of all professions. Accidents are bound to happen .. and do, with regularity. "One slight mistake inside the drift can lead to a tragedy," says Son Jin-seon, the Tongbo miner. Mr. Son has come to the threshold of life and death several times. In 1998, a fully loaded steel pushcart rolled off the track backward and slammed into him. His left ear was mashed, and now bears ribbons of black scars. "It’s nothing," Mr. Son says, "compared to what’s happened to others, my accident is nothing."

The three coal-mining accidents this year are part of a long history of mine disasters in Korea. In 1993, Korea was rocked by three consecutive tragedies. On April 2 of that year, a methane gas explosion deep inside a pit at the Jeongam mine killed seven miners. The incense that burned for the dead spirits on that day had barely gone out when on July 29, in the same mine, timbers collapsed and killed four miners. A month after that, timbers broke Tongbo Coal Mine and the water and rocks crushed five miners.

A year rarely goes by when there aren’t some underground disasters. In 1985, 10 Korean miners died. In 1991, there were four deaths and in 1992, seven. And then, of course, the 1996 Tongbo catastrophe that claimed 15.

Why so many accidents? Jo Won-jae, a research member of the Petroleum & Gas Development Center, says, "The biggest problem lies in outdated mining equipment and a lack of safety."

"The thing that really bothers me is that nobody out there seems to care," Mr. Son says. "Even if some coal miners die, to the outside world, it’s like ‘Well, that’s just the same old thing.’" -- Chun Su-jin

by Chun Su-jin

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