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Mine rescue teams hone skills through practice, competitions

| Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio — They replaced the canary with an intricate sensor to detect gases in mine air, and the lantern with an electric headlamp that produces light without heat.

But just as it was 100 years ago, it takes someone like Todd DeWitt to volunteer to carry gear underground and look for survivors when something terrible happens in a coal mine. DeWitt peeled off his sweaty gear after beating a hasty, 46-minute path through a mock mine disaster last week in the Greater Columbus Convention Center, 100 years after the first National Mine Rescue Competition at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.

"It's something that you have to have in you. To me there's not a good reason why you all of a sudden decide to do it," said DeWitt, 44, of Fairmont, W.Va., captain of one of Consol Energy's rescue teams for the Enlow Fork Mine in Greene County.

About 100 mine rescuers died on the job over the past 100 years, according to the United States Mine Rescue Association. Among the deadliest accidents was the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 explosion in Brookwood, Ala., 12 days after 9/11. Twelve rescuers died in a secondary explosion while trying to save one miner.

Things changed after that, DeWitt said. Federal officials who oversee mine rescues tightened enforcement of rules, which slows rescue teams' progress underground.

DeWitt helped carry the bodies of 12 miners out of the Sago Mine in West Virginia after a deadly 2006 explosion. His team was in the mine earlier that night, but ordered out because their oxygen was running low. He wonders whether his team might have found the miners before they asphyxiated if someone had allowed them to push a little farther.

Every time a miner or rescuer dies, rescuers and government officials review the tragedy to find something that might have prevented it or caused it. What they find often leads to a rule or procedure in the Mine Safety and Health Administration's biennial rescue contests.

Rescue teams typically enter regional contests in summer months, but they practice weekly or monthly throughout the year to learn to work together when needed in a mine. State regulatory agencies and MSHA send teams to assist when disasters occur.

More than 100 teams from around the country gathered for this competition, won by an Alpha Natural Resources team from Kentucky. Teams worked in waves through 12 identical mine layouts on the floor of the convention center, wearing full face masks, hard hats and respirators attached to oxygen tanks on their backs.

Team captains flipped over sheets of paper with hazards printed on them — an unstable ceiling, or high concentration of methane and carbon dioxide — and responded accordingly, pretending to test ceilings that weren't there and taking mock air measurements. Map men laid out courses and their hazards while walking or trotting through, with a half-inch margin of error.

Judges shadowed the rescuers, marking tasks completed or missed, and noting even the smallest infraction. Each rule matters, because behind each is the life of someone who died.

"The laws are written in blood," said Rob McGee, secretary treasurer of the United States Mine Rescue Association.

This is the first competition since the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in Montcoal, W.Va., when 29 miners died in the Massey Energy mine explosion. Twenty-two teams responded. MSHA scheduled a moment of silence for the victims during the contest banquet.

"We've learned from some of our mistakes," said MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin. His 31 years in mine rescue have taught him how little anyone really knows about dangers hiding in the dark. "Every mine rescue situation is different. You can't write a book on it."

The number of rescue teams fell to between 25 and 35 during the 1990s, said Norman Page, director of the competition. Sago changed that. The MINER Act passed afterward requires companies to locate a team within an hour's drive of every mine.

Damian Cobb, 34, of Fairview, W.Va., joined Consol's Loveridge Mine rescue team after serving three combat tours with his Marine Corps unit in Iraq, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. He came home and started a family, and says he's done with the military, "but I still need something in my life to satisfy the urge for excitement." He became the rescue team's captain.

"It's a different breed," Page said. While everyone else is running away, rescuers are putting on gear and running in, he said.

They step carefully, slowly through smoke. The hollow sound of their breath hissing through rubber tubes fills their ears. They move through darkness together, stepping low to make sure they don't step over bodies.

Waiting outside mines during disasters are people like Pam Morse. Her husband John and son Matt work for the mining company that lost 12 rescuers in 2001. John Morse joined a rescue team 31 years ago; Matt, about a year ago.

"You get a little on edge sometimes," said Pam Morse, 54, of Bibb County, Ala. When her son decided to become a rescuer, "the trainer from the teams asked me how I would feel having both my husband and my son on the team — what if something happened and they both were there.

"But you have to look past that and put it in God's hands. I'm proud of them. Somebody's got to do it."

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