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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sago Mine Disaster

Sago mine disaster

13 miners were trapped for 2 days by a methane explosion. 1 miner survived. 1 died in the initial blast.

The crew initially tried to walk out of the mine. They encountered some debris. However, because 4 of the men’s air packs didn’t work, they made the decision to return to the area of the initial blast because it was determined that without working air packs for the 4 men, it wasn’t safe to attempt a walk out.

The doomed crew talked about rescue. They banged on roof bolts, in an attempt to signal where they had been trapped after the collapse. This caused them to use up available oxygen faster. They retreated behind a cloth barrier attached to a wooden barricade with the light of one headlamp, where they waited. Smoke from the blast became increasingly dense. They believed a seismograph above would register their signal. They believed that a specialized machine, like the one used in the rescue of trapped miners in the Quecreek mine Pennsylvania incident trapped for 78 hours, would be utilized to reach them. The men talked about how long the rescue should be expected to take. They expected rescuers would dig in the right spot, would have registered their signal, and would have the specialized machine to work with. As time went on, they realized that there chances were decreasing, and they had less hope of being rescued.

Meanwhile, there effort had been in vain to signal, because the machine was not delivered, out of the belief that it was not needed. The special machine was not used, because the rescuers felt reasonably certain they knew where the trapped miners were, and the specialized machine was only needed if that were not the case. The Federal Mine Safety & Health spokesman is quoted as indicating that it would have taken 12-15 hours to set up the equipment. As it was, 40 hours passed.

The trapped miners needed air. 4 of the miner’s air packs did not work. The men examined the air packs, and also tried them, without managing to make them work. The men, therefore, shared air packs between them. At one point, 2 of the men left the cloth barrier to search for a way out, about 90 minutes into their ordeal. They returned quickly, gagging, after approximately 1 ½ minutes, and the group determined their only option was to huddle and wait. "All of our options," Mr. McCloy said, "were diminished to nothing." The men took turns banging of the roof bolts in order to continue signaling. They placed their exhausted rescue devices in a pile. Some men wrote letters to loved ones. They prayed. Eventually, everyone started falling asleep. The men succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning hours later, though the sole survivor withstood 40 hours in the conditions, long enough to be rescued, and eventually recover consciousness and health in a medical setting.

It has been noted that a whole generation of mine workers has been trained to pound on roof bolts if they get trapped underground. It has also been noted that this is a fruitless effort on the part of trapped miners, because in the case of most mine disasters, no one is listening. While it is true that the USMSHA has a seismic detector designed to hear the vibrations, it is 1970’s outdated equipment that is not rapidly deployable. Officials from the agency have admitted its ineffectiveness. In fact, while the system has been set up before, it has never been used. It is both cumbersome and antiquated, but the only system currently available that can detect trapped miners’ signals.

USMSHA must maintain modern seismic detection systems. Furthermore, miners should not be trained to believe they are entering into contractual labor that has safety and rescue options that don’t truly exist.

Rescuers also determined that it would have been possible for the men to walk out of the mine. It is unclear whether it was the dysfunctional air packs, the debris, or the dense smoke that lead the men to believe that there was a cave-in trapping them. In fact, rescuers claim this was not the case. The men did attempt to find an alternative escape route, but there was very dense smoke where ever they went. Once behind the cloth barrier, Mr. McCloy said the miners did not attempt to leave the barricade because they were convinced that the combination of smoke, gas, the blockage they'd encountered and wrecked radios and mine telephones had made it impossible to escape.

In contrast to the events and the testimony of the survivor, officials of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said tests on the four SCSR devices showed they were functioning. Investigators are confused by this, and were trying to determine this inconsistency. The Sago mine company’s explanation is that the stress of the situation caused the miners to perceive that they did not work. However, the survivor is adamant that there was something blocking their exit from the mine, and that they invested much time trying to make the air packs work, without success, and that something was definitely wrong with the devices. He claims that they were trained on them extensively, and that they understood perfectly well how they worked. In fact, it is clear, with questioning, that miners tried proper procedures to start emergency air packs. They also attempted a proper ‘jump start’ of the devices, recommended when they do not immediately activate.

Since the Sago mine disaster, it is believed the recent spate of mine fatalities, and the industry's handling of information pertaining to those deaths, may have cost the mining industry dearly in terms of credibility. In the Sago case, MSHA had issued citations but it is believed the mine had not corrected all the conditions. MSHA, for the purpose of protecting human life, can't afford to write the kind of citations they did prior to the Sago disaster, where they grant generous abatement periods and allow multiple citations to problem mines. In the past, a mine that makes a habit of poor management citations has not been considered as a serious threat to miner safety, unlike a mine that can be assessed as having violations imminently dangerous to health and safety, where a mine shut-down is required.

Mine rescue teams are now required to be located within an hour of a mine, with equipment and training. Maintenance, equipment and installing communications and tracking systems are necessary. Erroneous Sago communications created a public, media and political backlash. States considered pay hikes for mine inspectors. The President of the United States signed a Mine Safety Overhaul Bill into law, and the Miner Act was passed by Congress.

However, along with the previous rescue and equipment issues presented, a radio that can send a clear voice signal at least 11,600 feet into an underground coal mine may never get beyond the prototype stage because its developers say the market for it is too small. Coal production has increased steadily since World War II, but modern technology and a shift to surface mining allows companies to mine more coal with fewer employees at fewer mines. The decline in miners and underground mines has shrunk the market for mine safety devices. The relatively small market makes it hard for companies to recoup the cost of developing equipment that meets federal standards for use in underground mines. Most of the development of such safety equipment comes through contracts with the military, such as an Army contract for a radio to help troops maintain contact with their command centers as they move through basements, subways and other underground urban structures. In the Sago mine disaster, the explosion disabled the mine's wire-based phone system, leaving miners with no contact with rescuers.

People would like to see mine safety laws enforced strictly. Even as new legislation was passed following the Sago mine accident, it was missing some of the toughest provisions proposed by West Virginia's congressional delegation. Meanwhile, symposiums for the coal industry are looking at the Sago mine disaster in special sessions to highlight federal and state perspectives on the matter. Over the past few months, the Senate has overwhelmingly passed stricter mine safety laws. Who will implement them is still up in the air.


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