Deep inside a mine, a fire is serious. Circulation systems keep air moving in a steady breeze, and smoke spreads fast. Light a cigarette in one part of the mine and it won’t be long before someone a kilometre away knows what you’re doing.
So, when the emergency system in Potash Corp.’s Rocanville mine activated alarm lights and bells just before 2 a.m. Tuesday, Jamie Johnson did not wait around. Mr. Johnson was lead hand on a three-man crew running a miner, the large machine that burrows through the earth. Flames had erupted 300 metres away in a large wooden cable reel, producing noxious smoke from plastic insulation burning on a 30-metre-long, six-centimetre-thick electrical cable.
He didn’t yet know that. He did know he had to act fast. This was only the second time he had experienced an emergency below ground in nine years.
Mr. Johnson grabbed the phone located on the miner and called the control room. He was told to move to a refuge station – number 13 in his case, or lucky 13 as he would later joke, when he and 19 other miners were brought to the surface 24 hours after their shifts started.
At that moment, however, in the middle of the night, they had no idea how long they might remain underground. They grabbed their lunches and safety gear and, 60 seconds after the alarm sounded, were on a truck driving to safety.
But number 13 was 6.5-kilometres away and the trucks, bouncing across uneven rock, only do 40 km/h. It would take 10 minutes to get there. Mr. Johnson already had one piece of fortune: they were mining upwind of the fire, so their workplace had not been contaminated. He was fairly certain, though, that they would encounter smoke on the way to the refuge station. If it was heavy, they might not make it.
“We weren’t sure exactly where the fire was, and we were nervous getting there because we were trying to figure out what we were going to do if we did run into smoke,” he said Wednesday. “We had a pretty good idea of what we were going to do. We just didn’t want to have to go through it.”
Their best option was not a pleasant one. If they were forced to retreat from the smoke, they would return to the miner and wall themselves in at the end of a tunnel with brattice, a partition normally used to maintain a proper separation between clean and dirty air. They would have shielded themselves from smoke. But they would also have locked themselves in.
“It’s not nice,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’re going to be hot. You’re not getting any air then.”
As they neared the refuge station, the men encountered smoke. But it was light. They pressed on and arrived at number 13, opening first an outside door, then a second one three metres inside, to enter the refuge station. This was a fairly new station, and it was big, measuring 2.5- metres high, 15 metres wide and 60 to 90 metres long. Fluorescent lights ran along its ceiling. The power was on. A phone on the wall was hardwired to the surface, so they could report that they had made it. The air was fresh, in part because workers recycled it every month. And there was plenty of space.
“We probably could have played football in there if we had a football,” said Craig Davies, who started work as an underground operator in January, and who was with Mr. Johnson in number 13.
They were, in a sense, trapped. The fire was burning in a storage area, and they did not know whether it would spread to other cable reels. There was potential for a conflagration. But there was solace in knowing they had followed their training, which included weekly emergency drills. It had worked flawlessly.
However, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada is calling for a mine-safety review after the fire.
One group of nine workers, nearing the end of a shift, had already exited the mine. They had been at the bottom of the mine shaft when the alarms went off, and were whisked to the surface minutes later. After waiting around a bit, out of solidarity with those still below, the nine left.
“It’s not like there was anything to worry about. There was nothing unsafe about it,” said Tyler Maki, one of the nine. “These refuge stations, you could have 20 guys in there for 72 hours.”
He also knew workers trained on mine rescue teams would beat back the flames. In the meantime, the men below, spread across four different refuge stations, would wait in relative comfort and safety.
“It’s a big enough area that you’re not claustrophobic or nothing like that,” Mr. Davies said. “You knew eventually you were going to get out of there. You knew you weren’t going to be trapped for weeks or months.”
Plus, they had supplies: water from the kind of inverted blue jug system found in any office kitchen. First-aid materials, which none of them needed. A stretcher. Tins of tuna and beans and chunky soup. Tables and chairs.
And, luckily for them, a microwave that had been left there. Which came in handy, because they also had their own lunches which, for Mr. Davies, included lasagna and granola bars. Eventually they broke into the chunky soup. They were after all, down there with little else to do but wait out the hours, which were long.
On the surface, human resources workers had begun calling families after 6 a.m.; they would call several more times through the day to provide updates. The men were granted a chance to call spouses and girlfriends in the afternoon. They were also able to communicate sporadically with the other refuge stations, although that grew tough when the fire burned through cables that carry the radio signals.
Mostly, though, they napped – when they could, attempting to get comfortable on the hard rock floor – and swapped stories. Those on the crew weren’t just co-workers. In many cases, they were buddies who fished and rode ATVs together. So they talked about sports, they talked about the beers they would crack when they returned to the surface and they “reminisced about some of the old times we’ve had on some of our old quad trips,” Mr. Johnson said.
Their shift had started at 6:30 p.m. Monday. The first group returned to the surface at 6:42 p.m. Tuesday. It had been just over 24 hours. They were tired, eager to see family, and thirsty. When Mr. Davies returned home, he cracked open a Bud Light. He and Mr. Johnson would be back underground Friday – neither was particularly concerned about returning, figuring that every job has its risks.
But they would dip below the Saskatchewan prairie bearing something they didn’t have before: a good story.
“It was another experience,” Mr. Davies said. “Something to tell your grandkids down the road.”