Man's life mission was coal mining safety
Monday Profiles are published on the first Monday of each month.
Joe Garcia loved coal mining.
He was born in Throop, but grew up in Kulpmont, graduating in 1949 from Kulpmont High School, where he excelled at boxing and football.
During his high school years, he worked as a miner with his father, John Garcia, and uncle, Terry Garcia, and followed them into the arduous and dangerous work of underground mining after his graduation. He enjoyed the work and the friendships of the other miners. He also developed an extensive knowledge of anthracite mining and the dangers involved. This expertise led to his being appointed a federal coal mine inspector for the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1967.
Joe relocated his growing family to the Pittsburgh area. Following the enactment of the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1969, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA). In 1988, Garcia's 34 years as a federal coal mine inspector culminated into his selection as one of 10 federal district managers for MSHA, a role he had for 13 years, working in Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
He retired from MSHA on Jan. 2, 2001.
Early days in Kulpmont
"I remember my first job when I was about 13," Garcia said. "I worked on a garbage truck throwing garbage into a small dump truck for 50 cents an hour. Then I had to go to the house and collect the 10 or 20 cents owed. But then I also got to deliver coal to homes, and I liked that. We would run a chute from the truck to the basement window into the coal bin. Most of the time it was two tons of coal. I would shovel until all the coal was gone. I enjoyed the work. My dad decided that since I liked the work, I could be more helpful to him at his small mines. So he decided that I could help him - and I loved it."
The first mine
"My dad and my uncle took me and my older cousin, Joe Garcia, to a mine site they found near Hickory Ridge near Kulpmont. I was 12; Joe was 13. Dad had us dig by hand a four-sided shaft about 10 feet wide and about 7 or 8 feet deep. Then Dad and Terry built a platform over the hole and set up a windless - a device for lowering a large bucket with a cable attached into the hole. A man in the hole would fill the bucket and holler for the men to crank it to the surface and empty it."
"When we found the vein, we drilled holes in the coal. Each hole was about 1 ½ inches in diameter and 6 feet deep. We drilled these by hand. We placed dynamite into the holes, and used blasting caps and a fuse to set it all off. The loose coal was shoveled into the bucket, hoisted on the windless and spread on the ground. Then we shoveled it all into a truck for transport to a coal breaker. We made $3 to $4 a ton. Later my Dad and Terry designed and built a tipple, or bin where the coal could be stored then loaded by chute into trucks. It cut out a lot of shoveling.'
"I was working with my friend and brother-in-law, Ed Gusick, in a mine where we had some water. We were down about 200 feet in a mine car when we stopped to move a pump off the tracks. I went down another 20 feet or so and fell to my knees. I hollered to Ed that I was in trouble. He was screaming, 'Black damp, get out!' Black damp is commonly known as oxygen deficiency in coal mining.
I started crawling toward the top, not seeing Ed. Then I saw his cap light about 30 feet below me. I kept crawling and screaming for help. Dad appeared and he knew we had to get out of the black damp environment in order to breathe.
Dad saw Ed's light and decided it looked like Ed had crawled into the mine car below us. Dad tried raising the mine car with the hoist and saw Ed's light move. Ed had been overcome and passed out, falling across the two tracks with the hoist cable under his stomach. Dad carefully raised the cable until Ed came to near the top and started breathing again. We were both saved."
"On May 30, 1962, I heard on the radio that a 12-year-old boy, Kenneth Schickley, had fallen into an abandoned mine near Shamokin while chasing a squirrel. I went to the scene to volunteer to help. Another man, John Varano, of Shamokin, and I went down 400 feet in a mine buggy, then another 100 feet by rope when we found the boy. He was fatally injured and was lying on a long abandoned buggy, his skull fractured by the fall. I have never forgotten that little boy. The image of him remained with me throughout my mining career. In 1969, the Mine Health and Safety Act was passed and abandoned mines had to be sealed to keep that kind of tragic accident from happening. The experience influenced my whole life and focused my efforts on mine safety."
As a result of the tragedy, a grassroots movement to seal all abandoned mines in the Shamokin area was launched by the Independent Miners, Breakermen and Truckers Association and the Rosini Coal Company.
The final years
"After I was appointed a federal mine inspector, I was assigned to Kittanning to learn bituminous coal mine inspections. I became very proficient in inspecting coal mines and conducting mine recovery and rescue operations. At that time, I reported to District 1 manager Tom McDonald, who was determined to eliminate the number one cause of fatalities: roof falls. He began requiring every mine roof to be adequately supported according to strict guidelines. He appointed me leader of a team that would investigate roof falls and find a reason to require full roof support. Eventually, full overhead roof support became mandatory for every coal mine in the United States. This was a major step in improving safety conditions in the coal mining industry."
John Garcia, who has created his own career in mining, said his father was driving to make mining safer by the conditions he experienced in his early days in eastern Northumberland County.
"My Dad looked back on his early days dangerously working underground as a young man and vowed to protect the health and safety of our nation's coal miners," he said. "The guy from the little town of Kulpmont, Pa., was a major influence in improving mine safety throughout the country."