In the wee hours of Sunday, Jan. 29, an underground miner's worst nightmare came to life: fire broke out in the K1 and K2 potash mines trapping 72 people. Eventually all returned safely to the surface.
The sprawling complex at Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, is owned by MOSAIC CO. of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Production began in 1962, making it the province's oldest potash mine. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it appears to have ignited about 1,500 metres underground near the K2 shaft. Some polyethylene piping was engulfed which sent toxic fumes throughout the workings. It took crews about 20 hours to extinguish the blaze. A date to restart mining has not yet been set.
One reason that the miners remained safe during what could have been a disaster is the presence of refuge stations in the mine. Each of these is equipped with enough food, water and fresh air for a crew to wait safely up to 36 hours. The stations also have direct communications with the surface. It may not be deluxe accommodations, but for a miner during an underground emergency it can be a life-saver. There are no such refuge stations in U.S., Chinese or Australian mines.
Another reason is that all miners regularly practise safety drills. They know the layout of the workings (which in the case of K1 and K2 total over 4,800 km); they know which shafts or raises contain fresh intake air or smoky exhaust air; and they know where the refuge stations are (most double as lunchrooms), how to reach them and how to seal them off from smoke.
And the final reason the miners were brought safely to the surface is the turnout of highly trained rescue teams. They cannot receive enough praise. They worked tirelessly for 20 hours to put out the fire. They contacted all of the miners in the refuge stations to ascertain their well-being while the smoke was vented from the mine. And they brought all of them to the surface safely. It has been called a "textbook" rescue.
The people rescued at 3:30 Monday morning were 31 contract miners employed by DYNATEC. They had been about 900 metres below surface performing regular water management tasks. They had been trapped for roughly 24 hours.
CMJ asked Dynatec if their employees participate in regular safety drills while working on a project.
"Absolutely," said Mark Utting, Dynatec's director of communications and investor relations. "On such contracts our safety procedures are aligned with those of the site owner/operator, and we are very much a part of the mine-wide safety program, including participating in all safety drills."
Once again, hats off to the tireless rescue teams. And a tip of the cap to common sense that puts safety first for everyone.