A cool breeze whipped across his face. Lunging instinctively toward it, Serge burst through the heavy dampsheet as orange flames lapped greedily at its base. Bathed in the fresher air of the maingate, Serge’s lungs pumped out the toxic wash of gases with several desperate breaths.
The fire would consume the curtain in less than a minute. Gathering his feet, he followed the rails in search of the familiar steel cage, and prayed to God it would still engage. Limping away from the dim glow of the flames, darkness enveloped him.
After groping in the dark and shaking the stubbornness from his muscles, he yanked the lever for the steam whistle once. Leaving it open, the ear-piercing steam vented over 400 feet above him before echoing down the vertical shaft. With increasing coordination he flung the door to the cage open and threw himself against the back wall.
Taking another deep breath, he realized that oxygen was now both his best friend and worst enemy. He strained his eyes. Staring back down the maingate of mine #4, he imagined a hungry beast of flames bursting through the dampsheet and galloping directly toward him on all fours.
With a sudden jolt the cage surged upward at maximum steam. I’m sorry, Dino. You were just being you. Serge grabbed the crash bar behind him with both hands and lifted his gaze straight up the shaft. A tiny speck of light began to grow in size as the hum of the machinery below him evaporated. He closed his eyes and listened for the first hint of the machinery from above. If the flames were going to catch him before he reached the surface, he didn’t want to see them coming.
The cable creaked as the cage struck the side of the shaft, grating against the rock. He opened his eyes, realizing another explosion had shaken the earth, causing the cage to jump. Falling rock struck the top of the wire mesh and showered him with dust and gravel. But the cage maintained its rapid accent. Ducking to shelter his eyes, he realized the mine floor, now over 300 feet below, glowed with a flickering light.
The electric motor above him strained, the steam driven machinery failing ironically from lack of coal and flame. He regretted leaving the whistle lever down, but before he finished the thought, whoever manned the wench house shut the whistle off.
The swaying cage clipped the other side of the shaft, grabbing again at the rough rock walls like cheese through a grater. The fragments forced him to shield his eyes. Then below, he saw it. The beast of flame curled against the cage room and blossomed up the shaft. Growling and lunging upward, it chewed the air gaining strength.
The daylight above him expanded and grew brighter as the cage creaked against the single cable tethering it to the outside world. Serge gripped the door, pulled it open in anticipation of the surface. The air surrounding him rushed downward as the growling flame flew upward to swallow him. With the hair on his arms curling from the heat, he closed his eyes and burst outward from the cage.
Smashing into a heap of gravel and cinder, he barreled head over heals, using his hands to buffer a collision with a coal car at the last minute. Skittering sideways he came to rest on his back. Shading his eyes from the sudden brightness of both the sun and the roaring flames shooting from the shaft of mine #4, he watched the cage strike the ceiling of the wench house and snap its cable.
On hands and feet he dove as the cage came to rest were he’d just been. Finally suffocation gripped the fire beast by the tail, the flames disappearing down the shaft. Blinking in the searing light, Serge watched a diesel cat drag a steel cap over the fire singed mouth of mine #4.
“Men are down there!” But no one heard him.