A group of men compete in a mine safety class that was held at Moffat County High School's football field Wednesday.

Erin Fenner

A group of men compete in a mine safety class that was held at Moffat County High School's football field Wednesday.

Mine safety class preps workers for disaster

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It was bright at the Moffat County High School football field Wednesday afternoon, but teams were decked out in black gear as if they were rescuing people trapped miles underground.

It was all apart of a mine safety class.

Mark Beachamp, president of Colorado Mine Rescue and a trainer for Twenty Mile Coal Company, helped conduct a safety competition that would prepare mine rescue teams to handle coal-mining disasters. Sixteen mine rescue teams from various states came to Craig for the event.

“We’re kind of like firemen or search and rescue except we do it underground,” Beauchamp said.

It’s an important event, Beauchamp said, because, “It gets you into a routine. You don’t think. You just do.”

That element is crucial in a mining disaster.

Each team had 90 minutes to go through the course and recover two victims — all while not igniting gas or jeopardizing the safety of their crew.

“We really need to get better prepared in this day and age,” said Fred English of the Oxbow Mine rescue team.

He referenced the Upper Big Branch mining explosion as evidence that new technologies don’t prevent catastrophes.

“These things aren’t supposed to happen, but, they do,” English said.

That’s why he was happy these competitions are now a federal requirement for all mine rescue teams to participate in at least twice a year.

One of the biggest challenges during the event was just “not getting frustrated,” said John Merritt, an Oxbow Mine rescue volunteer.

Not only are team members strapped into layers of gear with only each other’s communication helping them navigate through several obstacles, but sometimes they even come to blow with the judges.

“When we find a solution that’s different than what (the judges) have there’s frustration on both sides,” he said.

But ultimately, it is a form of training. Merritt said he treats it like it was the real deal.

“(We) try to mentally handle it as if you were underground,” he said.

That mental preparation is key to being successful in a mine rescue, English said.

“It takes a certain kind of miner to go into a situation that is hazardous and even gruesome,” he said.

Besides providing Craig with training opportunities, Mine Rescue Coordinator at Twenty Mile, Dianna Ponikvar, said that this sort of event also brings revenue to the town. She said roughly 200 people are here for the event, staying in hotels and eating out.

“It brings a lot to the town of Craig itself. It’s a great stimulus,” she said.

While it is a competition, Ponikvar said it’s about serious stuff.

“In a real event there’s a 50-50 chance you won’t get out,” she said.

Beauchamp said his wife has asked him not to go on rescues before.

“I’ve always told my wife, ‘If it was me trapped there, would you want their wife to tell them not to go?’” he said.

Erin Fenner can be reached at 970-875-1794 or efenner@craigdailypress.com.

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