The sense of urgency that swept through Sudbury last September when 39 miners were forced to spend several hours underground at the Totten Mine was not unlike the urgency felt so many years earlier in Timmins involving another 39 miners at the iconic Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mine. At the time it was the largest gold mine in North America.
In Sudbury, the miners at Totten had to sit in refuge stations after the shaft was damaged during an equipment hoisting incident. The happy news was that the miners at the Totten Mine were able to return to surface a couple of days later thanks to a series of ladders and manways. This was done with assistance from mine rescuers, specially trained volunteers who are on duty in every mine in Ontario.
It was a different time and a different group of 39 miners back in February of 1928. That's when a fire broke out on the 550 level at the Hollinger mine in Timmins. The mining community back then never expected a fire could occur in a hardrock mine. As it turned out, the fire was fuelled by an underground trash dump, old lumber, powder boxes, paraffin paper and sawdust. Smoke and poison gas spread throughout the mine.
The inquest held into that tragic event determined that mining experts never anticipated any sort of an underground fire at any hardrock mine in Ontario. Nor was Ontario equipped to deal with it. There was no Ontario Mine Rescue back then.
As the call went out for help from the mining community across North America, coal miners in Pennsylvania who knew how to fight underground fires, were rushed by train to Timmins.
The sad news is that by the time the rescuers arrived there was no one left alive underground at the Hollinger. Deadly carbon monoxide had snuffed out the lives of 39 miners.
The one enduring thing that came out of the Timmins disaster was the provincial government recognized the need for a formal mine rescue service to fight underground fires and rescue injured miners. And so in 1929, Ontario Mine Rescue was created. It is now part of every mining operation in Ontario and considered one of the best rescue services in the world.
The significance of the number 39 was not lost to Shawn Rideout of Sudbury. He is Ontario's chief mine rescue officer and was one of the key players last September in the rescue of the 39 men at the Totten Mine.
"So yeah, that was in the back of all our minds when we were, you know, starting off on that incident," Rideout said.
"The number 39 really, really hit home for us. It actually gave me goosebumps. But yeah, it's a significant number for us."
Rideout said the Totten rescue story is still a key topic of conversation for mine rescuers across the province, one of the reasons being that rope rescue work was not a traditional part of Ontario Mine Rescue. He said one of the reasons was that Ontario mine workings were not as deep.
But rope rescue was vital to the success of the incident at the Totten Mine, said Rideout.
In the past 15 to 20 years, more and more situations have been presented where mine rescue people require a thorough knowledge of rope rescues. That is one of the reasons why mine rescuers are now regularly trained on rope rescue procedures.
"Ontario Mine Rescue has to stay on game all the time to keep up with the ever-changing evolution of mining and the methods of mining," Rideout said.
"So rope rescue work has really come into play over the last 15 to 20 years. In 2016, we completely changed our rope rescue systems that we purchased and went with the latest and greatest technology that's out there. So yeah, it's something that we've put a big focus on, I'd say in the last five years. Actually, most of the (mine rescue) officers in Sudbury currently in May and early part of June are doing a refresher session on rope rescue work."
It is not known if rope rescue will be part of the annual mine rescue provincial competition which takes place this year at the Creighton Mine on June 8 and 9, 2022. But it is just one of several skills the mine rescue teams must prepare for.
Along with rope work, mine rescuers are trained in underground firefighting, advanced first aid, working under oxygen for up to four hours with explosive and poison gasses, building bulkheads and barricades, restoring mine ventilation and finding lost, injured or unconscious miners.
Each year, the rescue teams are presented with a detailed two or three-hour mock-disaster scenario where they have to deal with underground fires, explosions or vehicle accidents or situations where miners are trapped by smoke, poison gas or injuries.
Each team deals with the same scenario and they're judged by a group of experts who rate the teams on how well they respond, how good their first-aid is and how well they interpret and respond to danger signs. Mine rescue teams in every part of Ontario receive the same training and use the same tools and equipment. This way, rescuers from Timmins or Thunder Bay can respond to an emergency in Sudbury and everyone knows what to expect. The details of the mock scenario are kept secret until a winning team is revealed.
Rideout said the training has helped make mining a safer occupation in Ontario.
"The competitions are used to simulate emergencies underground. And over the past 40 to 50 years, mining has become one of the safest industries out there. So we're seeing less frequency, you know, month to month, on real incidents that are happening at the mine. And what competition does for us is it really gives our mine rescue volunteers the opportunity to refine their skills in a simulated atmosphere," he said.
The provincial contest that takes place in June will see Vale's East Mine – the Sudbury district champion for 2022 – competing against teams from Kirkland Lake district, Timmins district, Thunder Bay district, Red Lake district, Algoma district and the Southern Ontario district.
Len Gillis covers mining and health care for Sudbury.com.