Giuseppe Ungari / EPA
Some of the 100 Sardinian miners armed with explosives barricaded themselves nearly 400 meters underground in Italy's only coal mine, Monday.
The miners laugh at the sight of worried journalists, who are used to elevators stopping on the ground floor. This one, instead, is descending about 400 yards underground, to the site of the last coal mine in Italy.
The gate opens to an underworld where conditions are almost unbearable. It's hot and humid, and it doesn't take long before we chew on the bitter taste of coal dust.
Just a few miles away, thousands of tourists sunbathe on the Italian island’s pristine beaches, but the miners' skin has been darkened by ash and soot. They joke that they are the only Sardinians who got a tan in the dark.
The mine looks like hell, but to the miners, this is a second home.
Some have been working in these mines for decades, much like their fathers and grandfathers before them. In this impoverished region, there's no other option. The coal mines have given work to generations of migrants from all over Italy since the 1930s. No wonder the biggest town in the area is called Carbonia.
Now, the company running the mine is planning to take the carbon out of Carbonia.
Coal is now considered outdated and unprofitable, and it is rumored that the mine could close by the end of the year.
The miners' reaction was quick and simple: if you want to kick us out, we won’t come up to the surface.
Union spokesman Stefano Meletti is being helped by fellow miners after having slashed one of his wrists during a press conference of 100 Sardinian striking miners barricaded inside a coal mine in Sardinia, Italy, on Aug. 29, 2012.
At least 30 workers have been occupying the mine as they await reassurances that they can keep their jobs, and the other 417 are taking turns to show their support. Living conditions in the mine are hard, they say, but they’d rather live in the familiar darkness than try to look for other jobs.
Lorenzo Congia is on his fourth consecutive day underground. He says he has no options but to cling to the only job available to him: “We will stay here until we have the certainty that we can bring the bread back home to our families. We work underground to feed our families. Outside of this mine, we are doomed,” he said.
His colleague, Andrea Pinna, agrees: “Our children are all unemployed and with no job prospects. If this mine closes, we won’t have anywhere to go. There’s nothing out there for us.”
On Wednesday, another miner, Stefano Meletti, slashed his wrists in front of television cameras shouting: “Is this what we have to do?” before he was wrestled to the floor by his startled colleagues. While they didn’t expect his sudden act of desperation, they say they, too, are ready to resort to “extreme measures” to keep their jobs.
They put up a white sheet with a warning, written in red letters in the Sardinian dialect: “This is the time for gunpowder." And the threat might not be entirely metaphorical.
A few feet away from where they are stationed, an iron gate is plastered with yellow warning signs. That’s the storage room for almost 1,600 pounds of explosives, and more than a thousand detonators. They are there for mining purposes, but authorities fear that in the hands of miners who pledged to fight for their cause to the bitter end, the explosives could turn into a dangerous weapon.
Union leader Gianfranco Sau says the miners don’t want to resort to violence, but he is finding it hard to restrain them.
“It’s difficult to retrain 447 workers. We keep guard of the explosives day and night, we don’t want an exasperated worker to do something crazy," Sau said.
A miners' delegation will meet government representatives in Rome on Friday to try to give the mine a new lease on life as a storage site for carbon dioxide in order to mitigate global warming and produce clean energy.
The miners are hoping for some good news. In the permanent darkness, any ray of light will do.
More world stories from NBC News:
- Assad stays cool amid reports of bread-line slaughter
- Ex-Marine on her journey from homelessness to the Paralympics
- Red Cross halts most Pakistan aid in wake of beheading
- Unexploded WWII bomb disrupts Amsterdam airport
- Pakistani Christians live in fear after girl's blasphemy arrest
- 'A less polar pole': Arctic sea ice at record low
- Botched restoration turns Spanish church into tourist attraction