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For generations of Illinois coal mining families, risk is part of everyday life


Brad Campbell’s last day with his father, Glen, was a special one. They went to Brad’s son’s soccer game and then watched American Pharaoh win the Preakness Stakes while eating chicken wings at a bar, and talked long into the night.

Brad and Glen were extremely close. They both loved camping, fishing, playing catch, and hunting squirrels and rabbits. Glen taught his son to love sunsets and sunrises. They had been planning a big party the following year when Brad would turn 40 and Glen, 60. 

But the party would never happen. Two weeks after that day father and son spent together, Glen Campbell was killed inside the Peabody Gateway coal mine where he worked. On May 31, 2015, Campbell was driving a vehicle called a mantrip underground, and collided with a coal rib, or pillar. He died of blunt trauma to the head, chest and abdomen. Federal investigators cited the company for failing to keep the mantrip in a safe condition and failing to enact policies to protect miners. 

Campbell’s family became one of many impacted by serious and sometimes fatal accidents in Illinois coal mines over the past several decades. In a region where coal mining is deeply enmeshed in communities, the danger and physical toll of mining are part of everyday life.

Glen got a job at Peabody’s Baldwin coal mine in Marissa, Illinois, shortly after he graduated from high school and married his sweetheart, Mary Green. Green remembers that he was funny, loved cars and had a “big sense of humor,” starring in school productions including “Hello, Dolly!”

Working in a mine was a common thing for young men to do, Green recalled, and she was pregnant with Brad at the time so Glen was eager to earn a living. She worried about his work right from the start, however, and especially after a mine “family day” where she and their young sons went underground. 

“It was dark and creepy — I didn’t see how people could work down there,” said Green, who was married to Campbell for 10 years and remained friendly with him.

Green used to pack a lunch pail for Campbell every day, and wash his bib overalls. She remembers how the miners and their families stuck together, going to dances at the American Legion and VFW, picnics with chicken and beer, and the big annual Christmas party hosted by Peabody. Miners would make belt buckles out of shiny pieces of coal called “mining dollars” — Glen made one for Mary’s father. 

Brad Campbell with his sons in his backyard in Herrin, Illinois in October 2018. Luke, then 6, stands next to his father, and Nate, then 11, sits on the fire pit his grandfather Glen Campbell enjoyed sitting by. Credit: © Neeta Satam

In all, Glen would spend 32 years working underground. He also had a stint as a truck driver, delivering appliances in Missouri, and he and his brother Gary worked in a steel mill for a time. The brothers worked together in a Peabody mine in Indiana, staying in a motel there between shifts and coming home on weekends. When Peabody bought the Gateway mine back on Glen’s home turf, he signed up to return.

Glen’s father Larry was also a coal miner, working alongside his sons for a time. 

Previously, Larry had taught high school and worked for a cheese factory, a soybean grain elevator, a pipeline company, a foundry, and as an insurance salesperson. As Larry Campbell, now 95, tells it, he became a miner to ease his wife’s jealousy, figuring she’d have nothing to worry about if he was underground surrounded by men.

“And then guess what, the mines started hiring women!” he said. 

Larry had some close calls underground himself. One time, he said, a rope slipped off an elevator carrying about 15 miners down the shaft loaded with their dinner buckets, tools and lights. The elevator plummeted down the shaft and hit the bottom, “bounced” and hit again, he said, though no one was injured. 

Another time when he was working as a roof bolter, a “300-pound” chunk of coal fell and grazed him. “I had coveralls on and it just kind of slid down my arm and hit my wrist. If it had been up higher, it would really have slammed me, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”

The incident that killed Glen Campbell wasn’t his first accident underground, Brad said. Glen had previously suffered a dislocated vertebra in a roof or wall collapse, and another incident permanently injured his shoulder.

But the danger was such an intrinsic part of the work that miners could become cavalier about the risks. Brad doesn’t doubt that his father was driving too fast in the Gateway mine. 

But Brad blames the company for the state of the vehicle Glen was driving: with a brake pedal that slid 4 inches to the side and was smaller than it should have been; the removal of a safety chain along the driver’s side opening, where Glen may have stuck his head out; and the removal of a spacer that would have limited the vehicle’s speed, as federal investigators found. Brad also blames an industry-wide culture that — as he and others describe it — emphasizes productivity and creates pressure to work quickly, leading miners to take risks and cut corners. 

An excerpt from an MSHA fatality report following Glen Campbell’s death describes the root causes and corrective actions.

While Glen prided himself on being a coal miner, he told his sons never to work underground. “He wanted something better for them, something safer,” Green said. Brad never worked in mining, and he doesn’t want his own sons to do so. 

But Glen’s life had a profound impact on Brad’s career, sharpened that spring night when he got the phone call — he remembers the exact time, 11:05 p.m. — and realized he would never watch a sunset or catch a fish with his father again. 

Brad is the safety and security manager for Southern Illinois Healthcare, overseeing safety in hospitals. After Glen’s death, he decided to take his commitment to safety to a new level. He recently completed a master’s degree in occupational safety management in hopes of becoming an inspector for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

“I want to identify problems and let people know about them — not to be punitive, but to get it fixed so this doesn’t happen to someone else,” he said. “If I save one person from getting that phone call I got, that’s my goal.” 

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