Members of the West Elk Mine rescue team, of Somerset in Gunnison County, go over a simulated rescue scenario Wednesday at Moffat County High School before a timer starts. The team of six had 90 minutes to systematically explore a simulated mine and safely evacuate a victim.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Members of the West Elk Mine rescue team, of Somerset in Gunnison County, go over a simulated rescue scenario Wednesday at Moffat County High School before a timer starts. The team of six had 90 minutes to systematically explore a simulated mine and safely evacuate a victim.

20 mine rescue teams gather in Craig

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Kyle Abaeyta, of East Carbon, Utah, competes in the pre-shift contest. Miners had to find and correct hazards in a simulated mine to keep miners on the next shift out of harm's way.

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Ray Mazzola, left, participates in the 18th annual Mine Rescue, First Aid, Bench & Pre-Shift Contest at Moffat County High School while judges Peter Saint, center, and Barry Grosly, right, evaluate his work. Twenty teams from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming participated in the event.

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Two members of the West Elk Mine rescue team close off an "airlock" in a simulated mine. Twenty teams from Colorado and Utah are competing in a mine rescue competition this week at Moffat County High School.

By NICOLE INGLIS

Daily Press writer

The power is out.

Miles of underground mine are flooded with water, and explosive levels of methane threaten the safety of five missing miners.

In a scenario like this, it is up to a rescue team of six miners to explore the mine and safely recover victims.

To prepare for the worst, each underground coal mine has two mine rescue teams, and 20 of those teams gathered in Craig this week to participate in a competition.

Three hundred mine rescue specialists from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico participated in three days of competitions simulating possible mine scenarios.

In its 18th year, the Craig contest concluded Thursday evening with a banquet at Loudy-Simpson Park.

Twentymile Coal Co., outside of Hayden, was one of the teams in attendance, as well as West Elk Mine in Somerset.

On Wednesday, rescue teams completed the same scenario in four "mines," simulated by PVC piping and colored flags, at Moffat County High School's football field.

A day later, individual miners went through a course that simulated a pre-shift inspection. They had to find and correct the hazards they found to keep the next shift of miners safe.

Inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration were judges in the competition.

Honing skills

Although the contest allows members of different teams to socialize with one another, trainings also are the law.

After the 2006 Sago mine disaster, an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine that killed 12 of 13 miners trapped in toxic air, new legislation was introduced to protect miners' safety.

Mine rescue teams were required to double their annual training hours to 96, and participate in two competitions each year.

"It hones their skills to prepare them for a real situation," West Elk Mine team trainer LaVon Turpin said. "They have to work through a problem and find the five unaccounted-for people. It's kind of like a game of Monopoly. There are very specific rules you have to follow."

He said it is good training for learning to follow specific instructions, because every scenario is different.

Justin Barrington, who works at the West Ridge Mine in Carbon County, Utah, said the competitions build team cohesion in a safe environment.

"It builds trust," he said. "And you've got to trust your teammates to do the job right."

Barrington, who has been a part of the West Ridge rescue team for four years, was of a rescue effort in the 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah.

Six miners were trapped by a collapse and never found. Three more rescue workers died in a second collapse while searching for the trapped miners.

Barrington said being part of that effort was disappointing and that the training offered by these competitions can make rescuers aware of the kinds of hazards they hope not to, but might, encounter on the job.

"No one wants that call at 4 a.m.," he said. "It's kind of a sickening feeling when you suddenly realize it's a recovery effort and not a rescue effort."

Turpin got involved with mine rescue while watching coverage of the Wilberg Mine disaster in 1984, which claimed 27 lives.

"It frustrated me to not be able to help," he said. "I took the next opening on the team."

Lives on the line

Although it wasn't a life-or-death emergency on the football field Wednesday, the West Elk team still showed a level of urgency once the 90-minute timer on their simulation began.

Five of the team members entered the "mine," while one briefing officer sat with his back turned, following their progress on a map and giving the team instructions.

The team had to systematically search all areas of the mine, which included testing the levels of toxic air.

In this particular problem, the group found one victim alive.

However, there were areas of contaminated air, and because the victim didn't have a breathing apparatus, the team needed to set up barricades to safely ventilate an escape path to safety.

The shouting of commands, distorted by oxygen masks, and the constant checking of equipment might seem out of place on a sunny football field, but in the face of an underground disaster, all the systems need to be in place.

"While everyone else is running out, they're going in," Turpin said. "They're putting their life on the line to do that."

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