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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Sunday, April 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Nation/World

Would-Be Rescuers Lucky To Be Alive Another 5 Minutes And Mine Would Have Claimed 4 More Victims

By Craig Welch And Kevin Keating S Staff writer

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

The dying 6-inch rat in the mine’s mouth could have been a warning, Justin Bursch said, but he was the only one who saw it.

And that was hours too late.

The 16-year-old Spokane sophomore and three teenage friends scoured an abandoned Lake Pend Oreille mine twice Saturday in search of two lost explorers. The second time, the foursome barely made it out alive.

It was only when Bursch trudged in a third time alone - head wrapped in a wet towel, one hand holding a shirt to his mouth - that he noticed the tiny, sluggish rodent. It was struggling to breathe and facing the mine entrance, apparently dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I wish I had seen that (the rat) on the way in the first time,” Bursch said. “I think I would have known something was wrong.”

But it would not likely have changed the outcome, authorities said. Stephan Novak, 28, and Chris Homstad, 22, probably were dead long before the four boys arrived at the mine and offered to help find them.

Bonner County Coroner Dale Coffelt said an autopsy Monday proved what authorities suspected: Both men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. There were no broken bones or signs of an accident.

Bob McPhail, director of Central Mine Rescue of Osburn, Idaho, said the levels of carbon monoxide inside the mine were high enough to cause death in about 15 minutes.

That’s no surprise to Bursch, his two high school buddies and his friend from Lewiston. They knew Saturday just how close they had come to death.

“It was like something in there was forcing us to go to sleep,” Bursch said. “It was like a black curtain was trying to come down over my eyes.”

The four 16-year-olds and two teenage girls arrived on the gravel beach eight miles across the lake from Bayview sometime after 3 p.m. Saturday. They had flashlights, headlamps and a dry suit, and hoped to explore the abandoned silver and limestone mine.

Stephan Novak’s father, waiting on the beach in his houseboat, asked the boys to search for his son. His son had entered the mine about 1:30 p.m. and was expected out at 2:45 p.m.

“They didn’t think there was anything wrong at that point,” said 16-year-old Jason Weatherred. “They thought they (Novak and Homstad) had just found something new to examine.”

The boys entered the mine and noticed only that it “smelled kind of weird, but we’d been in a couple of mines and they all smell different,” Weatherred said.

A few minutes inside and Brent Molsberry complained of a headache. He loosened his headlamp, thinking it was too tight.

Minutes later, the boys returned to the boat and borrowed some fishing line so they could trace their steps through the mine’s many corridors. They went back in.

Ten minutes later, when Weatherred stopped to tie the line to a log, Molsberry complained again of a headache. Then he collapsed.

“He just lost his balance and fell over,” Weatherred said. “I looked down and his flashlight was broken and he was trying to fix it, but it was like he was moving in slow motion.”

The boys didn’t hesitate; they decided to bolt.

It probably saved their lives, authorities said.

“Basically you got a hole full of poison or inert gas. And the problem with carbon monoxide is you get dumb at the same time you discover you are in trouble,” Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos said. “No panic button comes on and says get out. Instead you say, ‘Maybe I’ll sit down and rest for awhile.”’

The boys stumbled into one another, and began losing concentration - classic symptoms of carbon monoxide overdose. They saw black spots in the periphery of their vision. Bursch fell, bashed his head on a rock and lost his flashlight.

“I don’t really know how we made it,” Weatherred said.

Once out, the boys collapsed on the rock at the mine entrance. Their heads pounded. They urged the Novak family to call for help.

“We knew those two guys were probably in a lot of trouble,” Weatherred said.

Bursch later stepped over the rat and into the mouth of the mine and tried to shout for Novak and Homstad. Better-equipped rescuers found the bodies two and a half hours later, about 400 feet inside the mine.

After the ordeal, the foursome spent the evening throwing up and counting their blessings.

“It’s a weird feeling,” Weatherred said. “We never met those two guys, but we met their parents and shook their hands. It hit us pretty hard on Sunday.”

Doctors later told the boys another five minutes in the gas and they would have died. Authorities told them they probably would have passed out had they not left immediately.

They also told the boys they were only 30 yards from where Novak and Homstad lay dead.

“It’s all so hard,” said Faye Bursch. “I’m so proud of them for trying to help, so happy they were smart enough to get out.

“Yet I feel so guilty that the other boys didn’t make it,” she said.

Weatherred’s mother expressed the same sentiment.

“My heart bleeds for those other families,” Lea Weatherred said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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