By Bill Archer Bluefield Daily Telegraph 3 May 2008
BLUEFIELD, WV — As a rule, coal miners aren’t the kind of people to seek out the spotlight in anything they do. When they’re at work, they’re out of the public’s sight, and when they’re home, they’re the kinds of people who would be more apt to umpire a Little League baseball game, help a neighbor build a deck and sit in the back pew at church.
When tragedy strikes at any coal mine, any time, the volunteer members of mine rescue teams step up, spring into action and head off into the uncertainty of any given situation to do their best to save the lives of their fellow coal miners. They’re cautious and they follow the rules that they learn through countless hours of practice, but they don’t hesitate.
“It’s not a spectator sport,” Don Hager, trainer of Consol Energy’s “blue” and “orange” teams at the Buchanan Mine said. Hager’s “orange” team completed their field problem first at Saturday’s mine rescue contest held at Bluefield State College. “There’s no glory in it. I’ve been working with rescue teams for 29 years and I have found that the people who volunteer for rescue teams are the kind of people who always want to do something to help. Coal mining technology has changed, but the basics of mine rescue are the same.”
The competition is jointly sponsored by CART, Inc at BSC and Welch Post 1, National Mine Rescue Association “Smoke Eaters.” The Welch Post organized the first mine rescue team in the early 20th Century, but the post’s annual competition had been dormant from 1993 until 2007 when Milton Smallwood of the West Virginia Miners’ Health, Safety & Training office in Welch and Mike Plumley, a member of Cleveland Cliff Inc.’s Pinnacle Mine “blue” rescue team resurrected the competition. This year’s competition drew 11 teams, including two teams from Alabama.
“These competitions are good training exercises for each member on every team, but they also provide an opportunity for those of us who have been in mine rescue for a while to assess the strengths and special skills of the teams and individual members,” Plumley said. “The face of mine rescue teams today is changing, just like the face of the coal mining industry is changing. It’s a good time for this kind of positive change.”
“When we had these competitions back in the 1980s, none of the mines had trailers to haul their equipment in,” Smallwood said. “Now, the big mines have big trucks that they bring to these competitions. Each one of our offices also has a trailer so they can carry equipment to a mine site. A lot has changed since Sago,” Smallwood said, making reference to the deadly mine explosion near Buckhannon on Jan. 2, 2006, that trapped 13 coal miners underground for two days. Only one of the trapped miners at Sago, Randal L. McCloy, survived.
“Mine rescue teams have been around for a long time,” Smallwood said. “The difference now is that we’re getting good support from the state, from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and from the companies. We are thankful for that support, and hopes that it continues.”
New developments are emerging in response to the state’s commitment to the mine rescue programs. New state laws governing mine rescue teams require the teams to train a minimum of 96 hours annually, including four hours of training every two months while wearing oxygen breathing apparatus. In addition, the teams are required to participate in at least two competitions each year.
“We’ll probably have eight to 10 competitions like this one in the state this year,” Michael Rutledge said. Rutledge is the mine rescue coordinator for the Oak Hill office of the state office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, a position that was created at the first of this year. “New laws will continue to become active through the course of the year,” Rutledge said. “Rescue teams will have to compete in two of these a year. Imagine if a high school football team practiced every week and didn’t play in a game. They could get bored with what they were doing. These competitions are meant to help the teams sharpen their skills.”
Teams participating in this year’s competition included the Brooks Run Mining Co. “gray” team (Mike Hutchinson, captain), Cleveland Cliff Inc., Oak Grove # 1 team (Tom Buster, captain), Cleveland Cliff Inc., Oak Grove #2 team (Tim Bailey, captain), Consol Energy Buchanan Mine Rescue “blue” team (Scott Honaker, captain), Consol Energy Buchanan Mine Rescue “orange” team (Dennis Perry, captain), ICG-Beckley Team One (George Gibson, captain), Jewell Smokeless Coal Corp., A Team (Scott McGlothlin, captain), Jewell Smokeless Coal Corp., B Team (J.P. Richardson, captain), Massey Energy Southern West Virginia Team (Rob Asbury, captain), Pinnacle Mining Co., LLC Pinnacle White Team (Chad Lester, captain) and Wolf Run mining Co. White Team (Steve Hively, captain).
“The interest has always been there for mine rescue teams,” Ty Coleman said. Coleman is training coordinator for Wolf Run, and the ICG Inc., mine rescue teams. “Our mine rescue teams are currently doing 120 hours of training per year. We have three, 7-man teams and we’re putting on a fourth team this year.
“You have to remember that these are regular coal miners,” Coleman said. “When they’re training or off at competitions like this one, other coal miners have to cover for them.” Coleman has 31 years of coal mining experience and has worked with mine rescue teams for the past 28 years. “This isn’t like outside where if there’s an accident, you call firemen, police or rescue squads. You can only send a coal miner to rescue another coal miner. They take time from their families, the work is physically demanding and they have to study at home and they attend classes. All of this is designed to improve their skill sets.”
Ken Perdue, safety trainer for Brooks Run Mining, joined his first rescue team in 1974, and still works with teams. “These are all volunteers out here,” Perdue said. “The contests demand a lot of preparation. We have been provided all the resources we need to do the training. Most of the time we’re training, we concentrate our efforts on actual situations, but we also prepare for competitions.” Mike Quillen, Alpha Resources president and chief executive officer, announced on Thursday the implementation of a new bonus system for mine rescue team members. Alpha is Brooks Run’s parent company.
The competition wrapped up at about 5 p.m., with Massey Energy’s Southern West Virginia Team earning first place honors, (Asbury, captain; Mike Vaught, Mike Alexander, Shane McPhearson, Jim Aurednik, Jeremy McClung, briefing officer, and Russell Gunnoe, patient); Consol’s Buchanan Mine “blue” team earned second place honors, (Honaker, captain, Keith Richardson, Matthew Lane, David Goad, Tim Bandy, briefing officer, Reginald Lambright, patient, and Jackie Horn, alternate); and Jewell Smokeless’s A Team earning third place (McGlothlin, captain, Joe Ratliff, Aaron Stilwell, Nick Osborne, Rodney Justice, Elmer Vandyke, briefing officer and Chad Gibson, patient).
Richard Crockett served as chief field judge, and Donnie Coleman joined Rutledge, Plumley and Smallwood as the other field judges. Additional judges included Phil Adkins, Willie Barker, Virgil Brown, Steve Dean, Jim Hodges, Opie McKinney, Don Riffe, Mack Riffe, Randy Skaggs, Paul Smith, Boyd Vance, Preston White and Gilbert Witt. Other volunteers who participated included Jim Bennett, Randy Jennings, Terry Jude, Roger Owensby, Randall Kidd, Randy Meadows, Danny Spratt, Donnie Coleman, Beverly Litz and Janet Musick.
“It’s been a group effort with a lot of people pulling together,” Plumley said. “We’ve been working to get sponsors and to get organized since the first of the year, and we started laying out the problems on the field on Thursday.” The event was staged on June O. Shott Field at the Higginbotham Sports Complex on the BSC campus with “lock down” and refreshments in the first floor of Dickason Hall.
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