HAMPTON CORNERS, N.Y.: A thick seam of salt courses 1,300 feet beneath the rolling farmland of Livingston County, almost as far down as the World Trade Center stood tall. Extracting the crystalline commodity for de-icing roads has been a solid livelihood for five generations and, these days, it's a steady lamplight in the dim tunnel of recession.
Families trace their histories with the mines' ups and downs, but few have known tragedy and triumph like that of Joseph Bucci.
His grandfather, Nicholas, an immigrant from Italy in 1901, employed a shovel and a mule. His father, Joe, a GI Bill beneficiary after World War II, rose to chief engineer of the largest salt mine in the Western Hemisphere, a checkerboard maze of excavated chambers that grew to the size of Manhattan.
At first, Bucci didn't follow in his forebears' footsteps. He pursued a passion for teaching his income supplemented by work as a real-estate agent until a terrible day in 1975 changed everything.
He was teaching history at a high school a mile away when he heard the boom of a methane gas blast at the huge mine. It was the sound of his father dying.
Reflecting on how that event reordered his own life, Bucci said, ''I know my father was part of maybe a mistake that got three other guys killed. I just thought if he was alive he'd want me to stay involved some way.''
And so, putting aside personal regrets and community rancor and never anticipating he'd become a salt baron, Bucci signed on part-time as a mineral rights buyer for International Salt Co. A few years later, he reluctantly put teaching aside to devote himself full time to bringing up the rich mineral left behind when a shallow sea dried up 400 million years ago.
About 50 million tons of salt are produced in the United States each year. Ice-melting salt, sold in large crystals, accounts for nearly half of the $1.5 billion in sales, said Richard Hanneman, president of the Salt Institute, a trade association.
After a harsh winter, road-salt suppliers went into high gear in 2008 to meet surging demand and the 20.5 million-ton record set in 2005 was likely eclipsed, Hanneman said.
''We went through a lot of years where we just broke even,'' Bucci said. ''This winter's like the ultimate topping.''
With overtime, many workers make $40,000 to $60,000 a year, Buerman said.
''It gives you a quality of life hard to find in Livingston County,'' said foreman Scott Garrett, who has three children in college.
Safer than coal
About 2,500 people work rock salt mines in Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan and New York. Compared with coal mining, fatal accidents are relatively few. The last of the 36 deaths at Retsof occurred in 1990 when a roof slab buried two men.
''I've seen the best of mining and I've seen the worst. All in all, this is a pretty darn safe job,'' said drill operator Dennis Raftery, a 31-year veteran.
Chamber by chamber, salt is sawed with tungsten carbide-tipped cutting bars, blasted nightly with ammonium nitrate and hauled out on conveyor belts. Miners remove 13 feet of a seam averaging 19 feet thick, leaving at least 3 feet overhead for stability, and use a machine to dislodge loose ceiling chunks.
Sebastian Vitale, 29, whose great-grandfather Antonio worked in the salt mine, baby-sits computers at a crushing station. One good thing about the underground is the constant temperature of 58 degrees, plus ''you don't add salt to your food,'' he said.
Bucci delights in the periodic descent in ''The Cage,'' a swift elevator with room for 60 miners, and the 1.5-mile buggy ride through unadorned, pitch-black tunnels to the mine face. Back in college, he worked 14 straight day shifts one winter break without ever glimpsing daylight.
Bucci, 65, hopes his son, an environmental engineer, might someday take his place.
''What we have accomplished speaks for itself. It's certainly overwhelming to me,'' he said, his voice catching. ''I tell you what I do like: A lot of employees, I'd guess 20 percent, are former students of mine. That's a good feeling.''