Friday, June 21, 2013
The following letter was discovered on the body of one Jasper Meeks at the Comfort Inn off Interstate 79 in Pittsburgh near the Goldwater Mine.
June 21, 2012
To whoever is unfortunate enough to find this,
I ain’t writing to excuse what happened. You need to know that right up front. In fact if the other fellas would quit haunting my nightmares—at least I hope they’re nightmares--I’d probably carry what I know to my grave happily. It won’t do no man any kind of service to know what really happened that summer so long ago, but the others…well they jest won’t rest until I make my confession and so here goes.
I don’t actually remember much about the cave in. We was workin' the mine like always, pick axes swinging their familiar clang against the stones. One minute Buddy was singin’ “Come On Eileen”—that old eighties pop song that drove us all nuts, but that he loved because he was actually married to a girl named (of course) Eileen. I used to wonder how many times he sang it to her too and if it made her skin crawl after the hundredth time like it did mine. Anyway, that one minute the mine was solid and still and the next it jest wasn’t. There was an awful rumbling that set my teeth to chatterin’. Then darkness. Screams.
A deafening roar of crumbling rock followed by an eerie stillness. I probably blacked out at some point. Got hit in the head pretty hard. When I come to, Gilly and some of the other fellas had their head lamps on. We were in maybe a forty foot by forty foot space, all fifteen of us. Everybody hackin’ up half their lungs to get the dust out of ‘em. I felt like I’d sucked on a rock. My mouth tasted bitter, metallic.
At first we stared at each other for the longest time. You work in a mine all your life and a cave in is something you think about--come to expect--at least in your nightmares. But when it happens, well, your brain still has the audacity to be shocked. It took only minutes once we snapped out of it though, to realize how many men we’d already lost. I could see some of what was left of them. A few fingers peeking out from the rocks, debris-grayed and stiff. The bottom of a shoe. Good men every one. Back then I thought they were the unlucky ones. Ha!
So there we were, buried alive without some of them Victorian era grave bells to ring to let people know we weren’t dead and gone. At first we knew they’d be looking for us, they’d have to be looking for us…but we also knew we were miles from the surface, in the deepest section of the mine. Even though they knew we were down there, there was no guarantee that they’d be able to get to us in time. Mine rescues can take days, maybe even weeks if the rescue's tricky.
Gilly rallied everybody together right away. He tried to keep us busy emptying out our pockets and such to see what supplies we had. Turned out it wasn’t much. A few packs of gum, a pocketknife, a set of playing cards, a couple of water jugs (we got lucky with these. The rocks left the water untouched—pulverized our lunches instead). We didn’t put Gillly in charge, but it was easy to let him take it. He got us to organize. Take shifts stretching out so no one got too cramped up, panicky. For the first few days it wasn’t bad. We played cards. We sang songs…jest not Come On Eileen.
The real problems started after the second collapse. We heard it, but there was no way to figure out where it happened. The ground shook with it. I could feel it in my legs and back. Everybody got real still—like if we moved—the rocks beside us would decide to readjust themselves too and bury us completely this time. When everything went still again a couple guys were crying. When a woman cries it ain’t scary. But when a man who’s spent his life hauling stones and shrugging off all manner of tortures does, it’s downright terrifying. Gilly tried to rally us all over again, but it didn’t work so well the second time. Two collapses meant that we were buried extra good. Our hopes of rescue started to flicker out at about the same time our head lamps did. Wasn't long and we were in total darkness.
And then it got hard to breathe.
The guys stopped crying. Everybody started taking small, shallow breaths. It got hard to think. Sitting in the dark like that, the lack of oxygen was a weight on all our chests…and it did something to me. I didn’t want to die. I know the other guys didn’t either, but when it came down to it, I didn’t really care about them. It was my life, my family I was panicked for. I really, really didn’t want to die. That’s all I knew.
It didn’t look like I had a choice, though. The earth had swallowed me up and clamped its jaws shut tight and that was that. I couldn’t cry. There was no point in fighting. All I could do was sit back and let my panic swell up inside me until I could barely contain it.
Suddenly, there was a tapping--some kind of miracle. Faint at first, but then steadily growing. They were digging down to us. They knew we were there. It would take hours, sure, but they were coming. A couple of guys started shouting and banging on the rocks with their boots. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Every yell, every movement took what little oxygen was left. Gilly told ‘em to shut up, but the hope…it got hold of 'em like a fever and they yelled and yelled and banged and banged. My head filled with it--until it and the panic were all that was left of me. At that rate we weren’t gonna make it. Not with all those mouths gulping down air. If there were less of us...maybe. If only there were less of us.
I don’t remember feeling for the pocket knife…maybe if I hadn’t been sitting right next to the supplies…
In the end I got out. Alone. I wasn’t gonna kill them all, but once I started I knew that whoever I left would tell and I’d trade one hole for another to be buried in…one made of steel bars and cement. I kept feeling for their arms and then stabbing my way up to their throats. The dark made it easy. I remember the way that the men tried to wriggle out of the way, screaming when they bumped up against each other. Even if they couldn’t see me they knew what was coming. The coppery smelling air announced it.
My rescuers sent a flashlight down through the hole when they broke through the rocks. I yanked on the rope to let them know I was there and I could hear the cheer rise up from above me, faint, but mighty. I didn’t want to turn the light on, but I needed to find some clothes to wear. I wasn’t going topside in my underwear. I took Gilly’s pants. They were neatly folded under the playing cards and remarkably clean. But the rest of the room…and the guys…I should’ve left it dark. Then maybe I wouldn’t see them every night—blood soaked and wide-eyed and staring at me. Lately they’ve been showing up during the day too, propped up against the kitchen half wall or in the back seat of my car. I’ve dealt with it, tried to reason them away…but then I started waking up with rocks and dirt on top of the covers, pinning me to the bed and the men standing over me their mouths and their awful, bloody throats grinning at me. Now no matter where I am I can’t breathe, I can’t get any air…and I keep coughing up dirt. It’s not possible. I know that. And maybe you won’t believe me. But I know what I have to do. They want me to tell the story while I can still can. Before my lungs collapse just like that mine and everything goes dark one last time.