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Heroes Beneath the Earth

Filed in Mining, Safety By on October 28, 2015
A mine rescue team fights a fire during a simulated mine emergency.

A mine rescue team fights a fire during a simulated mine emergency.

Mine rescue is among the most risky and challenging first responder work undertaken in this country. Volunteer men and women – often miners themselves – willingly travel miles in the dark, navigating underground mine workings filled with debris and emitting toxic gases after a devastating mine fire, explosion or cave-in occurs.  Their goal? To find missing miners or recover those who did not survive.

For decades, mine rescuers have taken up the call when disaster struck at underground and surface operations. Major catastrophes that have required the services of these teams are well known: the Farmington coal mine explosion  in West Virginia in 1968 that claimed 78 miners’ lives, the Sunshine silver mine fire in Idaho in 1972 that claimed 91 lives, the Scotia coal mine disaster in Kentucky in 1976 where 26 died, the Wilberg coal mine fire in Utah in 1984 that claimed 27 lives, the Jim Walter # 5 coal mine explosion in Alabama in 2001 where 13 died, the Sago mine blast in West Virginia that claimed 12 lives and, most recently, the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster that claimed 29 lives.

This is by no means a complete list. I have been on site during many of these events and know firsthand why these men and women qualify as heroes.

Mine rescue methods have advanced considerably since the early 20th century.

Mine rescue methods have advanced considerably since the early 20th century.

Two years ago, the Mine Safety and Health Administration designated Oct. 30 as Mine Rescue Day, to recognize and honor the dedication and sacrifice of mine rescuers past, present and future. The date has historic significance. On Oct. 30, 1911, Dr. Joseph A. Holmes, a visionary in mine safety and the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, organized the first national mine rescue demonstration at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  Among the 15,000 spectators was President William Howard Taft.

At the same time, the national Holmes Mine Rescue Association was established. With robust support from the universe of mine emergency response stakeholders, it serves as a vehicle to disseminate guidelines, training and tools to the mining community.

Mine rescue technology has come a long way since the last century.  Thanks to state-of-the-art communications, tracking, mapping and atmospheric monitoring, the entire process is becoming safer and more efficient.

MSHA has steadily been upgrading its cadre of mine emergency equipment and, just last month, opened its newest mine rescue response station in Madisonville, Kentucky.

We owe our mine rescue teams the best training and support available for such high-risk missions. And on Mine Rescue Day, we especially owe them the recognition they deserve for putting their own lives on the line to help their fellow miners.

Joseph A. Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

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