Every January, Geoff Parker hands his wife the training schedule for his mine rescue team. The training sessions get penciled into the family calendar, taking precedence over everything else. Parker’s proficiency with a 28-pound breathing apparatus, designed to keep him alive for four hours in a bad air situation, could someday save his life, or the lives of co-workers at the Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan, Idaho.
“He’s doing a great service for the community,” says Parker’s wife, Kristin. “I never begrudge Geoff spending his Sundays doing mine rescue.”
Parker is captain of a five-person mine rescue team – part of a vast, national network of highly trained volunteers.
Nearly 200 mine rescue teams operate in the U.S. The teams are the first underground during emergencies. They respond to fires and cave-ins, disasters like the Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 West Virginia miners in January, and lesser emergencies, such as suspicious smoke smells.
The Lucky Friday maintains three mine rescue teams, as does its neighboring mine, the Galena. Responding to in-house emergencies is the teams’ first priority, but they can also be called out to assist other mines.
Parker, 34, trains a minimum of 40 hours each year to keep his place on the team. He’s one of about 40 Silver Valley residents currently active in mine rescue.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” said Parker, a mine planner/surveyor at the Lucky Friday. “You’d want someone to come and get you if you got hurt.”
Contemporary mine rescue got its start in Idaho’s Silver Valley, which produced some of the nation’s richest silver ore over the past 100 years, and one of the worst hard-rock mining disasters in U.S. history.
Ninety-one men died in the Sunshine Mine Fire in May 1972. Smoke from the fire was circulated by the mine’s ventilation system, spreading carbon monoxide through the mine.
One of the fire’s legacies was the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which beefed up mine inspections, safety regulations, and set criteria for mine rescue teams.
As a result of the act, each operating mine must have access to two rescue teams, available on call. Mines too small to staff their own rescue teams make arrangements with larger mine operators.
Team members train in first aid, firefighting and map-reading – a critical skill in places like the Galena Mine, which has 50 to 60 miles of underground openings. Annual competitions test teams’ ability to work under pressure.
Familiarity with ventilation and electrical systems and knowledge of ground conditions is also important. The Silver Valley’s last two mining fatalities occurred in 2001, when two Galena miners were buried in a rock burst.
The teams carry an array of sophisticated equipment, including the 4-hour breathing apparatuses, which cost about $8,000 each, and gas detectors. Above-ground equipment also plays a role.
When the two Galena employees were buried in the rock burst, rescue team member Steve Knoll seldom left the mine’s seismograph, monitoring ground movement in the area, and radioing the readings to an underground team trying to reach the bodies. There was a danger, Knoll said, that another rock burst could occur in the area.
Mine rescue has come a long way since the 1920s, when the Silver Valley’s first formal rescue organization was established. Mining companies banded together to form Central Mine Rescue, a mutual aid organization, which still operates in Osburn.
The first focus was outfitting a rail car as a traveling medic station, said Bob McPhail, Central Mine Rescue’s director. Central Mine Rescue also purchased some of the first self-contained breathing apparatuses used in the valley.Mining at the time was a largely unregulated industry. Men were crushed by falling rocks, killed in blasting accidents and electrocuted, according to “From Hell to Heaven,” an account of mine-related fatalities in the Coeur d’Alene Mining District.
In several instances, rescuers died of asphyxiation as they tried to retrieve bodies after mine fires.
While Central Mine Rescue helped raise safety awareness, it was the Sunshine Mine fire that galvanized a generation of miners.
Jeffrey Cravitz was a 24-year-old engineer when he was sent out from the Bureau of Mines’ Pittsburgh office to help with communications in the Sunshine Mine fire’s rescue efforts.
“Every day on shift, we had to go past the tent with all the family members, who were waiting for news of their loved ones,” said Cravitz, now the chief of emergency operations for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. “It stays with you all those years, the pain and suffering.”
The fire spurred McPhail, then a Lucky Friday employee, to a sign up for mine rescue training. It was both a practical and altruistic decision.
“This was going to be my career,” said McPhail, 64. “I decided I’m going to get every bit of training available to make sure that I get out of the mine.”
David Gray, the 48-year-old captain of the Galena’s mine rescue team, was a sophomore in high school when one of his uncles perished in the Sunshine Mine Fire. Another uncle had died in an earlier mining accident in Burke Canyon.
The tragedies didn’t deter Gray from becoming the third generation in his family to draw a paycheck from the mines. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities where you could go fresh out of high school and make $25,000,” he said.
But like McPhail, he figured he’d be as prepared as he could. Being in mine rescue “makes me part of the solution,” Gray said.
His interest in emergency response has spilled over into other areas. He’s also a volunteer firefighter, a ski patrol member and he runs a small business teaching first aid.
Mining is still dangerous work, Gray noted. Accidents in coal mines claimed 26 lives this year. Another nine miners died in other types of mining operations.
“That’s the chance we all take every day, coming to work here,” Gray said. “The goal is to work safe and come home every night. That’s a lot of my inspiration for being at the ready.”
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