Jour­ney into the Devil’s belly

Chal­lenge fate by ex­plor­ing the mines of Mount Di­ablo in An­ti­och, Cal­i­for­nia.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TRAVEL - By SAM MCMA­NIS

THEY call it a por­tal but, re­ally, it’s more like a gap­ing maw. The open­ing’s steel- en­forced gates, pad­locked, take on an al­most preda­tor- like as­pect, a gang­ster’s grill- work sneer­ing back at you. A dozen of us stood be­fore this thresh­old, await­ing en­trance, star­ing at the con­crete por­tico bear­ing the chis­elled in­scrip­tion, “1930,” and try­ing not to ob­sess over minute cracks in the foun­da­tion.

Our guide for the morn­ing, Mickey Ro­vere, sought to re­as­sure us – and by us, I mean just me and maybe that wary eight- year- old in the back – of the safety of the Hazel- At­las Mine, a long- dor­mant op­er­a­tion that ex­tracted first coal, then silica, from the foothills abut­ting Mount Di­ablo. But, in the very act of as­sur­ance, in his re­peated fur­rowed- brow recita­tion of preven­tive mea­sures and lib­eral use of the phrase “struc­tural in­tegrity,” Ro­vere only height­ened my anx­i­ety.

“We have mod­ern- day min­ers in here main­tain­ing th­ese mines ev­ery day,” Ro­vere said. “They are test­ing the in­tegrity of the rock to en­sure that where we’re go­ing to be walk­ing is go­ing to be safe. But it is a state re­quire­ment that we keep hard hats on. Re­mem­ber, this is a real mine. The hard hats should be a re­minder that you are def­i­nitely un­der­ground, OK?”

Gulp. I have a thing – ir­ra­tional, I know, but so be it – about en­closed spa­ces. I fear depths, not heights, har­bour de­bil­i­tat­ing en­tomb­ment fan­tasies, imag­ine all sorts of worst- case, buried- alive sce­nar­ios, akin to what those 33 Chilean min­ers faced a few years back. Sure, the open­ing of the shaft looked se­cure enough, in­vi­o­lable even, as we peered in while Ro­vere fum­bled with the pad­lock and opened the dou­ble- steel gates with an eerie creak. Struc­tural in­tegrity, I told my­self. Struc­tural in­tegrity. It be­came a mantra, a lul­laby to com­bat the de­canted cor­ti­sol, that toxic stress hor­mone, flood­ing my neu­ral path­ways.

No one else ap­peared the slight­est bit fazed, not even the eight- year- old. Their fas­ci­na­tion with get­ting a glimpse of his­tory about a by­gone en­ergy- ex­tract­ing in­dus­try, as well as gawk­ing at glit­ter­ing sand­stone rock 50 mil­lions years in the mak­ing and fos­sil rem­nants from what once was the ocean floor, seemed to over­ride any deep- seated angst. Af­ter all, peo­ple have been tour­ing the mine at Black Di­a­mond Mines Re­gional Pre­serve for two decades, not count­ing that clo­sure from 2007 to 2012 af­ter storm dam­age threat­ened the ( wait for it ...) struc­tural in­tegrity and ne­ces­si­tated ex­ten­sive re­pairs un­der rig­or­ous mine- safety reg­u­la­tions.

Once in­side, don­ning hard hats and clutch­ing flash­lights like life pre­servers in the pleas­ant 13.9° cool­ness, we pre­pared for a 90- minute trek 950ft ( 290m) into the bow­els of Di­ablo’s foothills to ob­serve the ge­ol­ogy and learn how, from the late 19th cen­tury to the late 1940s, min­ers blasted into the rock to scrape away first coal and then, when that rich vein ran dry, 1.8 mil­lion ton­ness of silica from the sand­stone to ship to Oak­land for mak­ing glass.

But first, Ro­vere gave us the lay of the in­land via a slide show in a room chis­elled out from the main shaft. In a fever­ish 10- minute pre­sen­ta­tion, the peppy, fast- talk­ing Ro­vere took us from the early Ceno­zoic Era when Mount Di­ablo was ocean floor and through tec­tonic up­heaval and for­ma­tion of coal de­posits. Then he segued into the en­tre­pre­neur­ial for­ays in which 4 mil­lion tons of coal were pounded out by work­ers, some just kids, for about US$ 3 ( RM 13) a day, while risk­ing black lung dis­ease, boiler ex­plo­sions and spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion. Then came the sand- blast­ing stope days of silica min­ing, where seven lay­ers of par­al­lel tun­nels snaked more than 7 miles ( 11.26km), con­nected by rail­road tracks.

By the time he got to the mine’s clo­sure, Ro­vere, al­most as an aside, told us “the rea­son we be­came a park,” which did noth­ing to quell my anx­i­ety.

“Th­ese mines pro­duce gases – methane, car­bon monox­ide, car­bon diox­ide – and, af­ter the mines closed, a lot of young ex­plor­ers wan­dered into them and couldn’t find their way out. Th­ese gases were over­whelm­ing. So ... ( the East Bay Re­gional Parks District) came in for pub­lic safety, sealed off all of th­ese coal mines, us­ing spe­cial foam and con­crete and opened this one mak­ing sure the struc­tural in­tegrity was sound.

“What I like to call this is an 89- yearold sand cas­tle ... ex­cept we don’t have a tide that comes in and washes us away. We have state- cer­ti­fied min­ers who come in and gen­tly tap on th­ese walls and ceil­ings – we call it scal­ing – all week long to test the struc­tural in­tegrity. OK, any ques­tions?”

There’s al­ways one in ev­ery group, some dolt who holds ev­ery­one back from ac­tual ex­plor­ing with an alarmist ques­tion. That per­son hap­pened to be me. I asked about earth­quakes.

“We’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to walk right through a fault,” Ro­vere said. “In 1989 ( the Loma Pri­eta quake), we had just one rock fall.” “Oh, that’s noth­ing,” I said, re­lieved. “It was a 317.5kg rock, so it wasn’t noth­ing,” he said. “It came out like a loose tooth right over there.”

He pointed to a spot near the por­tal, say­ing, “It crushed all our ( equip­ment). That’s why this area is all re­in­forced con­crete, to pro­tect walls.”

But as we trudged ahead about 9.14m through the tun­nel, about 2.44m high and 3m wide, the con­crete and wood re­in­force­ments ended. We were sur­rounded by sand­stone. I brushed my shoul­der against a pil­lar and sand crum­bled down my arm. Such porous­ness didn’t in­spire con­fi­dence in, well, the struc­tural in­tegrity of the walls.

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