June 12, 1995 in Nation/World

Deserted Mines Exhale Invisible Death Odorless But Deadly Gases Blamed In Saturday’s Tragedy

By The Spokesman-Review
 

FOR THE RECORD CORRECTION: The names of the victims who died in the abandoned mine Saturday are Stephen Novak, 28, and Christopher Ost-Homstad, 22. Both names were misspelled on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Correction published on June 14, 1995.

High above tiny Burke, Idaho, there is a hole in a mountain - the portal to an old mine.

The opening is framed by cracked timbers. Iron rails disappear into the tunnel.

Inside, stone walls drip with moisture. Cold water is ankle-deep. Posts, wedged into the ceiling, hold loose rock.

Sixty feet in, two rusted iron doors once sealed off the rest of the mine. Now, one hangs by a single hinge.

A flashlight illuminates the words someone wrote long ago.

“DANGER,” the faded red chalk reads. “BAD AIR.”

There are hundreds of deserted mines in North Idaho, many dating to the turn of the century. Some have been blasted shut or sealed off by mine owners or locals, but many remain open to the curious.

And some of the old mines, as two men found out Saturday, are deathtraps.

Rescue and law enforcement officials said Sunday it’s common for children and adventure-seeking hikers to explore the old tunnels. But they warned that it is extremely dangerous due to poisonous gases, cave-ins and vertical shafts.

“People just naturally want to get in and look at things. But you may not get out,” said Bob McPhail, director of Central Mine Rescue, based in Osburn, Idaho.

Stephan Novak, 28, of Seattle, and Chris Homstad, 22, of Minnesota, died Saturday of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning inside the Vulcan Mine at Lakeview, Idaho. Officials say the abandoned silver and limestone mine last was worked in the late 1920s.

Carrying flashlights, the two had gone into the mine about 1:30 p.m. About five hours later, rescuers wearing air tanks located their bodies, side by side, 300 to 400 feet inside.

Carbon monoxide inside the mine was higher than the rescue team’s meter could measure, McPhail said. The meter goes up to 1,000 parts per million. He said health officials consider 1,500 parts per million “immediately dangerous to life.”

Even at the portal to the Vulcan Mine, he said, gases were four times what federal health officials consider a safe workplace level.

“We had people that had to be treated, just standing at the entrance,” said Kootenai County sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Soumas. “It didn’t feel good breathing it in.”

McPhail said the Vulcan Mine deaths were the first non-miner casualties he knows of in 23 years of local mine rescue work.

“Around here in the (Silver) Valley, I like to think we’ve educated people,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of new people moving in.”

“A lot of my buddies went in and explored the mines. Hopefully after this, people will start closing them up,” said Mitch Alexander, a deputy with the Sheriff’s Department in Shoshone County, home to dozens of deserted mines.

The Vulcan Mine is on U.S. Forest Service land. Officials are considering sealing off the mine, said Ron Nelson, law enforcement officer for the Sandpoint ranger district.

“We have to determine whether it’s still an active mine and whether someone has some ownership in it,” he said.

McPhail says the old portals should be sealed off or blasted shut.

“You’ve got to do something with them. The more people we get coming in, the more it’s going to be a problem,” he said.

The main hurdle, he said, is paying for the work. In most cases, the mining companies that dug the tunnels disappeared decades ago.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TOP THREE DANGERS OF OLD MINES There are three primary dangers in deserted mines, says Bob McPhail, director of Osburn-based Central Mine Rescue: POISON GAS. If a mine has no ventilation, oxidizing rock and rotting timbers can create deadly levels of carbon dioxide and methane. Sometimes people will make the situation worse by building a fire. “That’s the last thing you ever want to do,” McPhail said. “You’ll use up the air and create carbon monoxide.” Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane are all odorless. LOOSE ROCK. Cave-ins are common in old mines, as rock shifts and timber supports fail. “That timber was put in there for a reason, but it’s rotten now,” McPhail said. VERTICAL SHAFTS. Debris or water may cover a shaft dropping hundreds of feet. An explorer in heavy boots can quickly drown.

This sidebar appeared with the story: TOP THREE DANGERS OF OLD MINES There are three primary dangers in deserted mines, says Bob McPhail, director of Osburn-based Central Mine Rescue: POISON GAS. If a mine has no ventilation, oxidizing rock and rotting timbers can create deadly levels of carbon dioxide and methane. Sometimes people will make the situation worse by building a fire. “That’s the last thing you ever want to do,” McPhail said. “You’ll use up the air and create carbon monoxide.” Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane are all odorless. LOOSE ROCK. Cave-ins are common in old mines, as rock shifts and timber supports fail. “That timber was put in there for a reason, but it’s rotten now,” McPhail said. VERTICAL SHAFTS. Debris or water may cover a shaft dropping hundreds of feet. An explorer in heavy boots can quickly drown.

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