Created on Sunday, 15 September 2013 Written by LORI KURTZMAN, The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Seven miners were missing. It was the rescue team's job to find them. And so they entered the mine, oxygen packs on their backs, checking for fire and explosive gas as they moved through the tunnels.
The Sufco Mine White Team rescues a trapped miner during the National Coal Mine Rescue Competition at the the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Sept. 11, 2013. Teams are judged by government officials and have 75 minutes to complete a series of rescue tasks throughout the course. (AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Adam Cairns)
Patrick Matheson and his rescue team emerged sweaty, breathing heavily. They ripped off their masks, soaking in the air-conditioning of the convention hall. Matheson said they'd found a few guys.
"Some," he said, "were not alive."
In real life, Matheson, a miner from Colorado, has never been part of a coal-mine rescue. But he trains for it constantly. And at least twice a year, he participates in a rescue contest such as the one that took place earlier this week in a convention center in Columbus.
"They're preparing for the event that they never want to experience," said Bruce Watzman, a senior vice president with the National Mining Association.
More than 1,000 miners and company officials gathered at the convention center this week as part of the 2013 National Coal Mine Rescue, First Aid, Bench and Pre-Shift Competition. It is sponsored by the National Mining Association and administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Eighty-five teams across the underground coal industry, from Utah to Alabama, showed up to compete in simulations that tested their skills in administering first aid, fixing breathing equipment and identifying hazards underground.
Like Matheson, many of the miners have never been involved in a mine disaster. But others spoke of lost friends and fallen co-workers.
Jeff Roberts, a 50-year-old coal miner from Kentucky, said he was part of the recovery efforts in the 2006 Kentucky Darby mine explosion that killed five miners.
That same year, 12 miners died in the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia. That explosion still weighs heavily on the minds of those in the industry, as does the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.
Watzman said new initiatives aim to make U.S. mining safer and eliminate fatalities within five years. Another push to reduce deaths and injuries involves the increased use of simulators to train miners in everything from drilling to welding.
But there will always be rescue teams, Watzman said, which is why miners navigated their way this week through poles and curtains that looked more like mazes than simulated mines. As he watched the men pass gauges through the air and shout to each other through their masks, Watzman said he hoped all this training would never be necessary.
"That's the ultimate goal," he said. "That you never need it."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com