Wives of S. Ind. coal miners share common fears

PRINCETON, Ind. (AP) — It’s the wee hours of the morning, and she’s still up, waiting for him to get home from the mine. They haven’t been able to speak for half the day. Nervous because he’s running late, she phones a friend — a friend who is also a coal miner’s wife.

Brittany Van Vliet, 29, Princeton, has been a coal miner’s wife for three years. “We started dating two days before he got the job,” she said.

She wasn’t aware that he was serious about coal mining and “kind of blew it off. I just thought he was joking.”

Her husband, Chris Van Vliet, 39, started out hanging curtains in the mine for Peabody Coal.

Brittany said she didn’t like that at all.

Now, he works in the mine with batteries the size of a pool table. One day a part came down on him and as he moved out of the way, it cut part of his finger.

“It was a pretty nasty wound,” she told the Princeton Daily Clarion (http://bit.ly/19pkndg ). “He was lucky, it could’ve been his hand.”

When Brittany got the first call, she didn’t answer. “I don’t usually answer for numbers I don’t know.” As another call came through, her intuition told her to answer. It was the scariest call she ever received.

“I just thought, ‘Something’s wrong.’”

The voice on the other end told her, “your husband’s in the hospital, he’s been hurt at the mine.”

She panicked. “My first thought was that his hand was cut off,” she says, “I was bawling my eyes out.”

Chris was out for about one month. The husbands act like injuries from coal mining are not a big deal, but the wives feel it is, she said. “I’m up all night long. If I get a call, it’s bad, no matter what.”

It’s better not to have any calls, although that can prove to be nerve wracking. Now, Brittany copes with worry by taking care of their 3-month-old boy and leaning on her friends, fellow coal miner’s wives.

“We’ll say, ‘Hey, has Casey got home? Has Joe got home?’”

The women soothe each other. “We all kind of take care of each other.”

Some of their husbands are at different mines, but they all share the bond of being a coal miner’s wife.

“We were all already friends,” she said. “We all ride motorcycles together.”

Despite this, she continues to worry for her husband’s health.

Miners destroy their bodies and face ultimately ill health for their families, she said. Her husband has to sleep with a breathing machine, in part because of all the rock dust, she said, and he deals with anxiety.

But miners need support from their families, especially theirs wives, she said. A coal miner’s wife needs support to stay strong for her husband.

“It would be nice to have a 9 to 5 job and know what he’s doing,” she said. But if he had that job it wouldn’t support their family the same way coal mining does, she acknowledged.

“He doesn’t do it for himself.”

So she doesn’t ask him to change careers, she said. “I just let it be.”

Beth Mincey, Wheatland, has been a coal miner’s wife for four years, and all three of her brothers-in-law are working for coal mines.

They are a new generation of coal miners. Jamie Mincey, 39, has worked for Peabody for 15 years, although not straight through.

He began at the Francisco mine about three years ago.

“I was pretty accepting of it since people have to be accepting of my job,” Beth said.

She works three 24 hour shifts a week for the Princeton Fire Territory and is about to return to school to learn about training horses.

He works 10 p.m. to 11 a.m. five to six days a week. With the little free time they have together, they go fishing and horseback riding.

“We deal a lot with going out to the coal mines,” she said of her work with the fire department.

“But if I’m at work I can hear the calls but I can’t call him to check on him,” she said. “I have to wait until the morning.”

Her husband was saved by a fellow miner who yelled at him to move just as a piece of rock fell. “One thing I learned is that when a rock hits them, that rock is like (the size of) a car to a normal person. As he moved away, the rock hit him in the arm, and he still has a scar on his shoulder from it to this day, she said.

The danger is not the only worry of being a coal miner’s wife. The uncertainty of the mining business is right behind it.

The longevity of the coal mine location and company itself is only calculated by what coal is available to retrieve, the quality of the coal, the price of the coal, and supply and demand.

Last year when the Peabody Air Quality Mine in Vincennes closed, “Many coal miners lost their jobs through this process, but the lucky ones, such as my husband and brother-in-law, were offered the opportunity

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to transfer to other Peabody mines in the region that happened to have openings.”

Some mines may only have 10 years’ worth of longevity left in them while others may have five years or 20 years, Beth explained.

She still wonders, “When and where will the next shut down be, will it hit our family again and if so, will there be another opportunity for transfer or will it be the end of the road?”

As his wife, it’s with mixed feelings that she accepts his work.

“There could be a day he doesn’t walk out,” Beth said, “but it’s our livelihood and he really enjoys it.”

Kristina Conrad, 28, of Albion, Ill., and her husband Ben, 31, have been married for two years. Two weeks before their wedding, Ben was injured.

He works at Gibson County Coal, where he’s worked for over five years. He’s been a coal miner for about eight years. They have four children, 11 years old to 6 years old. He works two weeks of day shift then two weeks of a night shift.

Two weeks before their wedding, Kristina was shopping in Nashville, Tenn., when she received a call that Ben was injured in an accident at the coal mine.

The voice on the other line told her, “You need to get here as soon as you can.” But a drive from Nashville to Princeton is several hours.

She was hysterical.

When she called back they told her that her future fiance was injured

Ben’s arm became pinched between the shuttle car and the coal rib. He had to re-drag his arm along the rib to get it out, she said, and by doing that, he cut the main artery in his arm.

It took a lot of physical therapy to recover from the injury — about six months. But Kristina and Ben realize it could have been worse — he could have lost his arm.

Still, Ben returned to the coal mine. It’s a part of him now. Coal is even accidentally embedded into his tattoos, Kristina said.

It’s not to say the coal mines don’t care about the health of their workers — they have health care on site, she says, which is a benefit.

But despite his past injury, he won’t change jobs — he has worked in the factory and doesn’t want to go back to that.

“I don’t think he’d do anything else, it’s kind of a lifestyle I guess,” she said. “He wants to go up to production to another job.”

Ben works hard, and Kristina doesn’t get a lot of time with him. “It’s been really, really stressful,” she said. He hasn’t had a weekend off in months.

But, they have a few hours in the mornings to chill, she said. “We bought a pontoon boat and we hope we get to use it next year,” she said.

“After an injury, it causes you to worry more,” she said. She copes by talking with her friends who are fellow coal miner’s wives. Her best girlfriend also married to a coal miner, and everyone they talk to is involved with coal mining and understands what it’s like.

Ben helps her out too. “I have him call as soon as he gets to the mine and as soon as he gets off.”

Destiny Miller, 26, of Princeton and her husband Travis Miller, 35, have been married for five years but have been together for 10. He mines for Peabody Coal in Francisco. They have one daughter, 7, and two boys, a 5-year-old and a 3-month-old.

“I still get nervous,” she says. “I pray though, ask God to put his hands upon him.”

She believes the Francisco mine is safer, and it makes her feel better, she said. Her best friend’s husband and her mother’s husband are coal miners as well. The community support is very helpful in coping with worry, she said.

“All the coal miners know each other,” she said. The wives are able to use their friendships as a way to keep up with one another. “If one of our guys is running late we call each other to see what’s going on.”

The money is good — she thinks perhaps if her husband had a good job where he could work less hours and make more money, he would quit the mine.

Otherwise, probably not. “It just depends on money,” she says.

Ally Keehn, 27, of Patoka, is used to coal mining — it’s embedded in her family.

Her two brothers-in-law are coal miners as well as her 30-year-old husband, Nathan.

After hearing stories of 25 or so coal miners being trapped, killed, or flooded out, she finds herself worrying for her family.

“It’s scary_you hear about coal mines and deaths in coal mines due to a rock fall or human error,” she said. She knows plenty of families who have suffered from injuries.

Nathan has been a miner for eight years, beginning at the White River/Hazleton mine until it closed and then moving on to Peabody’s third shift.

“We’ve been very blessed,” she said of the lack of trouble they’ve experienced.

Still she worries. “It’s always been my fear if it was a serious or fatal injury it would be not only the loss of life but the loss of an income,” she says, “I think about it every time he walks out the door.”

Ally says she has a great support system. The miners are brothers, she said. “At the same time you have all these wives to lean on. You just kind of get used to the fear and worry.”

At least 80 percent of the people the Keehns hang out with are part of the coal mining family. Their children go to each other’s birthday parties.

Coal mining “is not something I necessarily love, but he will never work in a factory,” Ally said.

“He loved it, so I came to get used to it, accepted it — he’ll never get out of the coal mine.”

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Information from: Princeton Daily Clarion, http://www.tristate-media.com/pdclarion

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Princeton Daily Clarion

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