No one knows utter darkness better than an underground miner. When the largest electrical failure in history hit Ontario and the northeastern United States on Aug. 14, more than 100 workers were stuck underground at four FALCONBRIDGE mines near Sudbury. What for us surface-dwellers was inconvenience could have been life-threatening for the miners.
Ventilation systems shut down as soon as the power quit, and the heat built up quickly underground. The telephones went down soon after, leaving only limited radio communication with the surface. Drinking water supplies in the refuge stations cannot be replenished. The idea of climbing as many as 5,000 feet up the escapeway must have sent shivers through all but the fittest men.
Fortunately, what might have been a disaster became only a matter of sitting and waiting. A report in the local Sudbury Star newspaper said that stench gas was released, the workers reported to the refuge stations, and all miners were accounted for. Falconbridge employees on the surface made sure the news got out that no miners were injured or missing. Crews in the Fraser, Lockerby, Craig and Thayer Lindsley mines sat in the refuge stations for as long as 13 hours before they could use the cages to leave.
Much to the credit of Falconbridge surface workers, they got power restored after contacting the hydro governing board, Hydro One, and the local office of the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Electricity at the Lockerby mine was back on about 12:45 a.m. Friday, after that for at Fraser, then at Craig. The last employees were hoisted out of the Thayer Lindsley mine at around 5:40 a.m. Shifts were cancelled for the rest of the day, but mining was to resume on Saturday.
All North Americans take electrical power for granted, seldom reflecting about what might happen if it is interrupted and rarely preparing for such an emergency. The story of the trapped miners had a happy ending because Falconbridge had previously established procedures to deal with such situations. It's time the rest of us took stock of our candles, extra water, and back-up generators. I suspect such power interruptions will become more common, not less as terrorist threats and swelling power demands won't go away in the near future.