Rescuer describes miners' perilous 1km climb to safety

After 39 Ontario miners were evacuated, Ted Hanley, of Ontario Mine Rescue, explains the operation - and the dangers they had to navigate

Rescuer describes miners' perilous 1km climb to safety

After 39 workers in Ontario were trapped for days in a mine near Sudbury, their carefully executed evacuation culminated in a perilous climb to freedom.

COS spoke with Ted Hanley, VP, Ontario Mine Rescue (OMR), about the rescue efforts, which were coordinated by OMR. The main takeaway? That the danger isn’t what you would expect it to be.

“Why this was challenging is that [the workers] were having to travel almost a vertical kilometer out of the mine, which is physically difficult to begin with. And there was a high chance that, during that long strenuous exercise, accidents or injuries could occur,” says Hanley.

Collapses and cave-ins spring to mind when it comes to mine safety, but in this case it was the evacuation itself that was hazardous.

If a miner were to slip or fall, it would have made the situation that much worse, because those workers did not have access to advanced medical care. And though the miners were generally safe in refuge stations underground, there were some concerns about the miners having to stay underground for extended periods of time.

This was cause for concern, because during that time the miners didn’t have direct access to food, to sunlight or to their loved ones.

“Being underground, unable to leave for several hours let alone several days, it weighs on these individuals,” says Hanley, “and so a large part of [the rescue] was just preparing to even have these people in a state of readiness to come out so that nothing bad did occur during the evacuation process.”

Indeed, though the secondary exit was functional, it was still quite the climb. Part of the evacuation plan involved preparing the miners for a large amount of physical work. After all, the miners had already worked a full shift and spent a day underground with limited access to proper rest and nutrition. There were also psychological effects, too.

Despite his own role in the rescue, Hanley was quick to credit Shawn Rideout, chief mine rescue officer with OMR, for leading the massive efforts to safely evacuate the workers. The 39 miners are now safely evacuated after the last four workers were rescued in the early hours of Wednesday. While they will most likely need some time to recover from their stint underground, friends and family are celebrating the successful outcome of the rescue operation.

A rare incident

So, what went wrong? During a normal process at a mine where large pieces of machinery or supplies have to be moved underground, mine operators bring them down the vertical shaft attached to the bottom of a conveyance (essentially a mining elevator) which is then lowered down to the level in the mine on which they need it.

The equipment is then removed on to the level and then reassembled there. “There’s a very complicated process for mines to get large pieces of equipment into the underground workings when the openings to get in there are not as large as they need to be,” says Hanley.

This is essentially what had been happening on Sunday before the mine got blocked. This kind of operation is pretty standard, says Hanley, and happens in mines all over the world.

At the Vale Totten Mine, a large piece of equipment detached and travelled down the open mine shaft, and damaged portions of it. The shaft was not only used to transport equipment, but is also used to move the workers in and out of the mine. It is the main means of egress and how the workers get into the mine every day.

So when the piece of equipment dropped, the damage it caused meant that it was no longer safe to move the conveyances or the elevator up and down, and so no longer safe to move people using that method.

“Now, the cause of what became the emergency or the evacuation is that because [the workers] lost their main means of egress, they had to use a secondary means of egress,” says Hanley.

In Ontario, this is a regulatory requirement: to operate a mine you must have a secondary way of exiting the mine. In most cases, how this secondary means of exit is up to the mine operator.

Typically though, these secondary exits aren’t as quick or efficient as the main one as there is usually no need for it. Hanley says that in 99.9 per cent of cases, a secondary egress does not need to be used – they are, however, required for the 0.01 per cent of times incidents like these occur.

In the case of the Totten mine, the secondary exit is a series of manway ladders, steep ladders that are in vertical shots in the rock that go from all the way underground to the top of the mine.

Endless variables

During the three-day operation the OMR team, led by Rideout, worked with the Vale management team to perform a control group on the situation to come up with a plan:

“The Ontario Mine Rescue program is set up for weeks exactly like this. We train the mine workers, we train the mine management team […] Their first course of action was to gather information from underground on the status of the situation and the status of the workers,” says Hanley.

Once they determined that the main point of travel was unusable, they paused work. The group then began a risk assessment process on the work that needed to be done, and what controls would need to be put in place to safely get the workers out. The rescue operation began on Monday night.

There is a standardized process put into place, but there are endless variations that can occur in a mine emergency, so the team also has to deal with very specific details.

For example, in this case, not all the workers were able to climb the ladders to evacuate the mine. For these workers, says Hanley, a series of high angle rope rescue systems was put into place.

“For those that did not require any assistance, it was just a safety backup while they were climbing so that if they were to fall, they were protected against that. And then in the case of some workers, they required full lift assistance as they were unable to climb the ladders on their own,” says Hanley.

In Ontario at least, mine rescue is something that all parties agree on, says Hanley. It is a cooperative effort between the mine operators, the Mine Rescue program and the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development in Ontario.

“It’s a very unique partnership in mining where health and safety is fully supported […] no one argues that it is a requirement and everybody supports it through training and the preparation work. Which is unique because every other component of health and safety is argued in mining.”

All operations at the Totten Mine are currently suspended while an investigation is launched.