DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO JOIN A MINE RESCUE TEAM?
by Harold Hough
In May, Consol Energy closed its Bailey BMX mine while over 100 mine emergency response people from the mine, state and federal government swarmed the site. Fortunately, it wasn’t a mine disaster that they were responding to, just emergency drills. The simulated mine disaster required miners to retreat to a refuge alternative and await the arrival of mine rescue teams. Nearly 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface, the “trapped” miners successfully tested the effectiveness of MSHA’s seismic location system by pounding on roof bolts to alert those on the surface of their exact location.
It’s easy to forget the bravery of Mine Rescue Teams. For, while miners go into mines when they are deemed safe, mine rescue teams must enter mines at times when they are most dangerous as seen in the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010.
There are 187 mine rescue teams registered by the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). They are located so at least two teams are within two hours traveling time of any mine. While about two dozen MRTs are solely funded by specific mining companies, most derive their money from several mines and government agencies.
The typical mine rescue team has five or six members, who have been fully trained and equipped. But when they go on site, they merely act as the core of a larger effort. Depending on the situation, they will bring in drilling and heavy equipment operators, mining engineers, geologists, and others.
Mine rescue teams are built along the same lines as volunteer fire departments. Teams are made up of volunteers who have other full time jobs. Members are trained to respond to many different emergencies. “These first responders are, in my opinion, the backbone of mine emergency response – the men and women called upon to do the heavy lifting when mine fires, explosions, roof falls, inundations of water and other such events occur,” MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph Main said. “Preparation for these mine rescue teams involves a considerable amount of dedication, skill and training.”
Training and refresher courses take place across the country, but one popular site is the Idaho Springs, Colorado training facility, which is operated with the help of the Colorado School of Mines. There team members learn how to carry out many of the hazardous tasks required of MRTs. While wearing 40 pound rebreathing apparatus, they have to learn to crawl through confined spaces that are dark and filled with smoke. Breathing apparatus masks are painted black to force the team members to rely on other senses.
Other exercises that MRTs have to go through are dealing with tunnels blocked by cave-ins, fires, and deadly gases. And, since everyone is wearing breathing apparatus, team members, who are roped together, have to learn to communicate with each other, often with bicycle horns (the image can’t help but remind one of Harpo Marx in the Marx Brothers movies).
If you have ideas of being a member of a MRT, you better be in good shape. MSHA regulations have strict physical standards that state, “Each member of a mine rescue team shall be examined annually by a physician who shall certify that each person is physically fit to perform mine rescue and recovery work for prolonged periods under strenuous conditions.” And, forget facial hair because nothing can interfere with the seal of the face mask on the MRT member’s face.
However, all that effort is worth it if they can bring a miner back to the surface alive. One example of an MRT effort was the Sheppton Mine disaster in 1963, when a coal mine in Pennsylvania caved-in. MRTs were initially unable to reach the miners 300 feet underground because the shaft was unstable and the threat of dangerous gases. However, after two weeks, two miners, David Fellin and Henry Throne were rescued.
The Sheppton rescue effort broke new ground. Rescue workers decided to drill a borehole to reach the miners – the first time in history that it had been tried. Miraculously, the drill hit the small compartment, nearly hitting Fellin in the head. Although the borehole was too small for the miners to get out, it did give them fresh air and communications with the outside world. However, in order to rescue them rescue teams had to drill a 17 ½ inch hole that required special equipment, which was airlifted in by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who owned the drill manufacturing company, Hughes Tool Company. The effort was successful and it provided MRTs with a new way to save trapped miners.
Although not all rescue attempts are as successful or dramatic as the Sheppton incident, there is no doubt that MRTs put their lives on the line every time they go into a cave to rescue miners. And, despite advances in mine safety, they will remain a critical part of the mining industry for the future.