Monday, Mar 7 2005


Rushing into disaster: Mine rescuers proud no one ever left trapped underground

Laura Stradiotto

Source: The Sudbury Star Date: March 07, 2005

Editor's note: this is the first of a two-part series

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Laura Stradiotto/The Sudbury Star
John Guthrie, retired mine rescue officer from Onaping, holds a flame safety lamp, once used to indicate oxygen deficiency. The lamp has since been replaced with the iTX Multi-Gas Monitor, which uses the latest technology to monitor poisonous, noxious and explosive gases in mines.

Photo: Laura Stradiotto/The Sudbury Star

No one would deny that mining is the backbone of the community. We hear how nickel profits soar and about new mining projects surfacing, but underneath the glory lies the men and women who work underground. For them, the 160 active mine rescuers in the Sudbury basin are their backbone.

Sudbury Star reporter Laura Stradiotto enrolled in a four-day course administered by the Mines and Aggregates Safety and Health Association to train alongside some of the best in mine rescue, learn more about the volunteers and demonstrate how a woman fits into the equation.

June 20, 1984, remains forever etched in the minds of Falconbridge, resonating thousands of feet below in abandoned chambers.

"The memories come back and they come back quite strong," said John Guthrie, pausing briefly to compose himself.

"It's difficult to talk about. They say grown men shouldn't cry."

Tragically, the summer day was "another page in mine rescue."

A rockburst measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale occurred about 4,000 feet below the ground's surface at Falconbridge Mine, trapping four men.

The tremor was supposedly felt as far as Creighton Mine, following a ground fault that runs the same distance.

Guthrie was the Onaping mine rescue officer who responded to the crisis, more than 20 years ago.

In the first hours, the team uncovered the body of maintenance worker Sulo Korpela.

Guthrie received a call later that afternoon to get a team ready to be on stand-by after mine rescue workers discovered mechanical apprentice, Wayne St. Michel, alive but buried under the rockfall.

"When you have a cave in, usually nobody survives, it's over," said Guthrie.

"But in this particular case, it didn't kill St. Michel, it just trapped him.'

Rescue workers could talk to him and even pass him water.


"That afternoon, I got the call to go down. They needed special equipment I was carrying -- the jaws of life and lifting bags.'

At that stage in mine rescue in Ontario, Guthrie was "in the process' of obtaining equipment for 'non-fire emergencies.'

Before the 1984 Falconbridge rockburst, mine rescue was about putting out fires. As the mine rescue officer, Guthrie ensured his men had the proper equipment, but underground on that summer day, the jaws of life failed to provide adequate power and the lifting bags were too large.

The jaws of life had a five-tonne lifting capacity and the trapped worker was buried under hundreds of tonnes of rocks.

Mine rescuers were working within a crawl space and resorted to using their hands to dig the man out. 'The best piece of equipment they had was jack knives and surgical scissors because there was no room to work,' said Guthrie.

After an earthquake, aftershocks are normal. The same is true in a rockburst.

The rocks around St. Michel's were unstable, but rescue workers believed they were mere minutes from freeing the man. As they were trying to free St. Michel's head, the rock fell above him, crushing him before their eyes.

"They say if they would have had 10 more minutes, they would have got him out,' said Guthrie.

"That was the emotional part of it."

Days later, mine rescue workers uncovered the bodies of the remaining workers: Daniel Lavalee and Richard Chenier. An inquiry into the tragedy recommended additional training for non-fire emergencies.

Overcome by the tragedy, mine rescuers established June 20 as Workers' Memorial Day.

On July 10, 1984, Falconbridge announced it was closing the mine. A coroner's jury made several recommendations on improving mine rescue techniques, evacuation procedures and developing new equipment.

"We have some rigid rules," said Guthrie. "We've learned our lessons from the past.'

Born in Warren, Guthrie worked at Garson Mine and in 1960 added mine rescue to his portfolio. When the Onaping Mine Rescue Station opened in 1968, he became the mine rescue officer.

On-call 24-7, Guthrie lived in the mine rescue station until 1994 when he retired, raising five children with his wife on the upper floor level of the building. (Now mine rescue officers don't live at the stations, they carry a beeper instead).

"It was rather strange to get used to the fact that you get up in the morning, go downstairs and you're at work,' he said.

"It took time adjusting to that because I always carried a lunch pail and had to drive sometimes 50 miles to get to work.'

In hard rock mines, no man has ever been left trapped underground, said Guthrie. But as for coal mines, 'it's a completely different ball game.'


Through continual improvements in procedures, new equipment and better knowledge of the underground environment, the safety of mine rescue workers has been preserved.

To date, no mine rescue worker in Ontario has lost his or her life in a rescue effort.

Under Oxygen chronicles the last 75 years of mine rescue in the province, beginning with the 1928 fire at Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines Limited in Timmins which gave birth to the concept of mine rescue in Ontario.

At the time, the province was ill-prepared to respond to the incident. Thirty-nine men lost their lives and rescue personnel from the Toronto Fire Department, Canadian Gas Company and mine rescue workers from as far away as Pittsburgh were called on to extinguish the fire and rescue whomever they could. After the disaster, then premier of Ontario G.H. Ferguson announced a commission to look into the cause of the fire and make recommendations.

The province's first mine rescue stations in Timmins (1929), Kirkland Lake (1930) and Sudbury (1931) were established shortly afterward and a mine rescue officer was appointed at each site to train men and take care of apparatus.

There are 160 active mine rescuers -- the majority men -- in the Sudbury basin and that number is expected to grow as mining activity increases.

Trained men and women from across Ontario operate out of seven mine rescue stations. Earlier this year, the Mines and Aggregates Safety and Health Association announced it was going to close the Kirkland Lake station. The decision was based on the number of mines in the area and the challenge of trying to distribute staff evenly, said Susan Haldane, MASHA communications specialist.

However, mines in the area raised concerns over the closure, arguing the safety of workers would be compromised and that mining activity was about to increase. MASHA recently resolved to keep the station open and re-examine the station in another two years.


From underground to the classroom, all mine rescuers must enroll in training courses to qualify.

There are no specific height, weight or strength requirements to become a mine rescue worker, explained Bruce Hall, mine rescue officer at the Sudbury station to a classroom of Laurentian University engineering students last week.

Candidates have to pass a medical test and remain calm in emergency situations. Physical demands can be extreme in rescue situations, and although tasks are arduous they're not impossible, he said.

Candidates also have to be somewhat gutsy. Who else would run into a mine when everyone else is trying to escape?

Ultimately, the safety of the mine rescue team is a priority. But with such a clean record in safety, almost 50 years of mine rescue in Ontario passed before a woman received her certificate.

Cynthia Cameron was an ambitious 19-year-old student from Haileybury School of Mines when she was certified in 1978.

Guthrie said when he started his career in the 1960s, women weren't even allowed on the mine property. Today, women work underground and come out fiercely in mine rescue competitions.

Still, Shannon Myher is the only women in the second year of Laurentian's mining engineering program. Myher, along with chemical engineering student Susan Wiebe and a dozen other students, spent reading week taking a mine rescue course provided by the Mines and Aggregates Safety and Health Association.

As for this Sudbury Star reporter, spending four days learning about the procedures and equipment of mine rescue was an experience like no other.

Read about Laura Stradiotto's experience "under oxygen" Tuesday as she participates in a mock mine rescue along with 14 Laurentian University mining engineering students.

Read Part 2