Tuesday, Mar 8 2005


Going 'under oxygen': Star reporter learns life-saving skills of mine rescuers

Laura Stradiotto

Source: The Sudbury Star Date: March 08, 2005 Edition Name: Final Page: A1 / Front

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

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Photo supplied to The Star
Crowded elevators are sometimes enough to make Sudbury Star reporter Laura Stradiotto queasy, so she surprised herself when she remained calm when an oxygen mask was suctioned onto her face as she went underground with mine rescue students.

Photo: Photo supplied to The Star

It takes a good 20 minutes to assemble and test the BG4 closed-circuit breathing apparatus. When the mission is to rescue workers, while protecting the safety of your own team, every minute is valuable.

From examining the mask to filling a canister with soda lime to ensure carbon dioxide is removed from your exhaled breath and then testing the oxygen cylinder pressure, overlooking one gadget could mean the difference between life and death for a mine rescuer.

That's why mine rescue officer Bruce Hall spends three days explaining how to assemble, function, test, store, wash and use the BG4. The name sounds more like a character from a Star Wars film than the breathing apparatus that allows mine rescuers to work in extremely toxic atmospheres for up to four hours.

When you go "under oxygen" your every breath relies on the BG4 functioning properly. What looks like a backpack with breathing tubes, is no fashion accessory, weighing in at 35 pounds -- a little more than one-third my total weight.

While there's no ideal body frame to carry the BG4, I wondered whether simple aerobic workouts would be enough to prepare me for a mock search and rescue in the depths of the Sudbury basin.

Securing the oxygen mask around your face will indicate whether you're claustrophobic or not. Crowded elevators are sometimes enough to make me queasy, so I surprised myself by remaining calm when the mask was suctioned onto my face. It's a good thing too. If I would have freaked out then, proceeding with the course would be pointless.

For eight hours a day, I sat in a classroom at the Sudbury Mine Rescue Station with 14 Laurentian University mining engineering students to take a basic mine rescue course designed for students.

The course teaches students about the main breathing apparatus, introduces them to the underground atmosphere, various other pieces of equipment and, most importantly, how to work as a team in a mine rescue situation.

If students are successful at the end of the course, they are one step further toward becoming a qualified mine rescuer. Once they secure employment, they spend a couple more days underground to walk through material learned and then rewrite the test.

There's no arguing the mining industry is the driving force behind the Sudbury economy. So safety of its workers is of optimal importance.

A well-ventilated mine is essential to the health of workers and production.

Mine rescuers provide the same care to mine workers as firefighters and paramedics provide to the public above the earth's surface. They have to fight fires, rescue trapped or injured workers and reventilate the mine. Training is extensive and technically challenging. Mine rescue students must pass both a practical and written test of material covered in four days of instruction.

Besides learning about the BG4, the course covers toxic gases, the level of their contamination and their effects on the human body. For someone who whizzed through high school without chemistry or physics, I wondered how my brain could wrap around the concepts and numbers.

It's not unusual for mine air to become contaminated by gases such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane. The deadliest of all is carbon monoxide; a tasteless, odourless and colourless gas that is often referred to the silent killer. Changes in oxygen levels can result from the presence of water, ore, blasting, diesel engines or natural occurring gas emissions.

As I attempted to absorb all this information, I cursed myself for not paying closer attention in Grade 10 science and tried to remember the periodic table of elements.

Many of my fellow classmates sleep, dream and live mining engineering.

The course is tough to say the least; students are required to take six courses a semester which are two more courses than the average student. But the work pays off, students say starting salaries for a mining engineer run between $45,000 and $55,000.

Under oxygen

As we plummeted 3,100-feet underground in the cage, I thought how I was never fond of roller coasters or carnival rides.

Travelling 2,200 feet a minute, we were destined for a mined-out area of a local mine to conduct a mock search and rescue.

Wearing a hard hat, coveralls, steel-toed boots and a groovy set of goggles, with the BG4 molded onto my back, we formed two teams. Each person would have a specific task: the captain would lead the team, while the others carried the stretcher. Team members would communicate with each through a code of whistle sounds: one toot means stop and two means to advance.

The air was clammy and already I could feel beads of sweat streaming down my hairline. We learned seven years ago an actual mine rescue occurred on this level. A worker drove the scoop tram to a level above, but the machine flipped and fell 100 feet. The scoop tram caught on fire and the worker was burned alive. The story added a spine-tingling dimension to what we were about to embark upon.

As soon as we landed, we surrounded John Hagan, the Onaping Mine Rescue Officer, who briefed us on the situation.

Our mission was to find Laurentian University professor and senior technologist Lionel Rudd. But the catch was, we had to do it through thick smoke, in the pitch dark.

Hagan told us there was a man missing in the stope located around the corner. There was a fire and while another team was already working to put it out, we had to take breathing apparatus to the lost worker. Hagan gave us the location of the refuge station, which is a closed off, properly ventilated room where rescuers can congregate and communicate with surface crew.

"Go down the shaft, proceed on the level, bearing left all the way,' he told us, showing a map of the level.

We would run into smoke about 400 feet down the shaft because of the ventilation, he continued, so we had to get under oxygen outside the deck.

"Call me within 30 minutes," said Hagan. If he didn't hear from us, that would mean we were in trouble and he needed to send in a back-up team.

It was around 7 a.m. when we placed the mask on our faces and turned on the oxygen. The BG4 was starting to weigh down on me and my body realized it was usually still in bed at this time. But as I took a couple of deep breaths of oxygen, my eyes widened and a little surge of energy jolted me. I usually bump into the walls while going to the bathroom in the dark, how was I going to manage in a cavernous pathway?

My heart began beating quickly, knowing the smoke we were going to meet was poisonous.

After we passed under the ventilated doors and into 'contamination,' we squeezed each breathing hose to ensure no smoke was coming into the apparatus. Those not carrying the stretcher attached themselves with their link lines to a team member. Whatever happens, team members keep tabs on each other.

The thought that the smoke used in the mock rescue was poisonous kept running through my mind. This was the closest I've ever been to danger, I thought.

As I helped carry the stretcher, our captain led the way, using a probing stick to poke this way through the shaft.

The ground was not flat and at one point I lost my boot. The vice-captain, standing in the back, tooted the whistle once to stop the procession. Embarrassed, I used the car lamp to look for the damn thing and located it a couple of feet behind me. Bending down, my nose began to run and I screamed inside knowing snot was dripping onto my lip.

But, no time for piddly problems. First we had to locate a "leaky feeder radio' as a communication source. Hagan was following behind us to make sure we didn't get into trouble, probably laughing at our blind attempts.

"You passed it," he yelled.

We turned around, all still attached to each other and scanned the opposite wall, locating the phone in less than a minute.

Every 20 minutes, we stopped to check our oxygen cylinder pressure and report the number back to the captain. The pressure decreased as the time went on and the harder we worked ... or if excitement and nerves overwhelmed.

Jagged pieces of metal stuck out and if you looked the other way, expect a hard whack on the head.

It was at this point I realized how drenched my clothes were: my pants underneath my coveralls were creeping down. My mask was clouding up. Luckily the mask is equipped with a little windshield wiper located on the front, which I used to clear up the view. But the smoke was getting thicker and at certain angles the beams of lights would bounce back from the smoke particles, making it impossible to see an object until it's right in front of you.

We reached an abandoned scoop tram and carefully passed on the left side of it. The area was tight and I had to let go of the stretcher to make my way through. A couple of feet further and we hit a wall in front of us. We couldn't go any further, so we must have passed Rudd, the missing worker. We turned around and travelled along the opposite side of the scoop tram. As we continued to call out to Rudd, we finally located him on an elevated surface beside the scoop tram.

"I was wondering when you guys were coming," he laughed.

Mission accomplished within 17 minutes.

Tuckered out

After a half day underground, exhausted we made our way home to snooze. It was only afternoon but the mock rescue had tuckered us out -- even those with broad shoulders seemed a little slouched over.

Our second mission however was to write the exam, a combination of short answers, multiple choice and true or false. Sounds simple enough for a engineering student. But for an English major, I spent the night memorizing the explosive range of gases, the contents of pure, dry air at sea level and what each miniscule piece of the BG4 does.

Maybe I'll trade in my tape recorder for a BG4.

After four days of training and studying, I passed the mine rescue course. And I've got the sticker for my hard hat and sore shoulders to prove it.

Colour Photo: Special to The Sudbury Star / Crowded elevators are sometimes enough to make Sudbury Star reporter Laura Stradiotto queasy, so she surprised herself when she remained calm when an oxygen mask was suctioned onto her face as she went underground with mine rescue students.