Letting go is difficult in mine cave-ins
Monday, August 27, 2007
By Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joe Manchin was 21 when the Farmington No. 9 Mine blew up with a roar that shook the town nearby, sent a mushroom cloud of smoke and dust into the West Virginia sky and trapped 78 men.
One of them was John Gouzd, Mr. Manchin's uncle.
After nine days of trying to reach the men, Consolidation Coal, the mine's owner, gathered families in the company store for a meeting.
"They made the announcement that the mine would be sealed," Mr. Manchin, now West Virginia's governor, remembered. He can't recall who was speaking. He just remembers the words, then the groans and cries.
"I can only tell you there was no one in that room that would have agreed that you should close it," he said. "After you thought about it, it all made sense. If you were thinking at all, it wasn't rationally. After nine days you were numb."
Five years later, searchers found a few fragments of John Gouzd. Most of him remains in the mine, along with 19 other men who share a mountain for a grave.
The decision to call off the search at Farmington, a call fraught with passions that stretch from rage to resignation, has been played out time and again by rescue teams, mine safety officials and engineers who are sometimes called to apply mathematics to a scene of strife.
Last week, amid seismic shifts that killed three of the rescuers at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, where six miners became trapped in a massive collapse, someone in charge said, in effect, "Enough."
But yesterday, despite drilling a sixth hole and finding nothing, officials changed their minds and said the search will continue.
In an announcement that thrilled miners' families, federal and mine company officials said a seventh hole will be bored into the Crandall Canyon mine and a special robotic camera will be lowered into a hole drilled previously.
"We always have said that we won't leave anybody behind. We try to come after them. That is when we think that they're alive. But that is a real tricky situation," said Buddy Webb, president of the United States Mine Rescue Association.
Making the call, though, now is a team decision.
"I don't think it's up to the rescue teams anymore," said Tom Hoffman, vice president of Consol.
Instead, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which evolved as new mine-safety laws were enacted after Farmington, now makes the final call. Mr. Webb wasn't involved in the rescue at Crandall Canyon, but said the process there likely was two-pronged.
"MSHA would have a big part in it, but it's the mine owners, too, that kind of weigh that situation," he said.
The earlier decision was relayed in startlingly different ways. Mine Safety and Health Administration director Richard Stickler worded his explanation cautiously. Robert Murray, the mine's co-owner who used earlier news conferences to expound on everything from mine safety to his disbelief in global warming, bluntly told family members the men were dead.
Making the call to end a rescue, or to transform a rescue into a recovery, takes a skill set that is as yet undefined, say the people who specialize in saving the lost.
"There's no hard and fast science to that. Every case-by-case instance has to be determined," said Dave Pichotta, a deputy sheriff in San Bernardino, Calif., who heads up the search and rescue teams that fetch tourists and adventurers from caves and mountainsides.
Mr. Pichotta's group never officially calls off a search.
"We continue to put teams in there for training and other issues and just recover whatever we may be able to recover. We will end up telling someone that we have scaled the operation back," he said.
When Rod Henry and team members from Consol's Pennsylvania-based mine-rescue squad arrived at the Sago Mine in January 2006, one of the major issues became precisely when to begin the rescue attempt for 13 trapped miners. It was the flip side of the question about when to end it.
What they had in mind was a disaster five years earlier at the Jim Walters Resources Mine in Alabama, where a team of rescuers rushed into the mine after a catastrophic explosion and were hit by a secondary blast. Thirteen rescuers died.
"In mine rescue, we have three priorities," Mr. Henry said. The second and third deal with retrieving the living and securing the mine.
"The No. 1 priority," he said, "is team safety. We will not endanger the team to rescue people you're not sure are alive."
Rescue teams at Sago waited for hours for the air in the mine to clear. Only one of the 13 miners was found alive.
Even thought officials have decided to try again, repeated bore-hole drilling into the Crandall Canyon mine have showed little oxygen and no signs of life.
At Crandall Canyon last week, both MSHA and Murray Energy, the company that co-owns the mine, called in a team of engineering experts to assess the condition of the mine and the 2,000-foot mountain atop it to decide whether further tunneling was feasible.
From all accounts then, the answer was uniform: There was no reason to think a rescue tunnel could be dug without risk that it would collapse around the rescuers.
Keith A. Heasley, a mining engineering professor at West Virginia University, was part of a seven-member panel that spent hours examining the data that would feed last week's life-and-death decision.
"In one sense, I think we put our blinders on and we attacked it as an engineering problem: Is there a way to get in here where the roof's not going to fall on you?" Mr. Heasley said.
When the answer was "no," the panel's job became putting together a brief, written paragraph that measured risks and probability. That statement would become the basis for MSHA's decision last week to end the digging.
"It took hours to write a couple of paragraphs," Mr. Heasley said. "We all knew, I think, what the possible implications of that might be."