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A file photo of the exterior of the Potash Corp. Rocanville potash plant. (TROY FLEECE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A file photo of the exterior of the Potash Corp. Rocanville potash plant. (TROY FLEECE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Trapped Saskatchewan potash miners on their way to surface Add to ...

Twenty workers trapped a kilometre underground at in a Saskatchewan potash mine are on their way to the surface 18 hours after a fire broke out at Potash Corp.’s mine in Rocanville.

The mine operators are coming up in groups, with the first 15 due to break the surface any minute.

“It’s been a long day,” said Mill Operations Superintendent Terry Daniel. For rescue crews, it had started at 2 a.m. Tuesday when the fire started, then almost 12 hours as workers armed with foam and water fought a blaze of burning wooden reels wound with electrical cable. For hours after the fire was extinguished, they waited for the mine to cool and used massive fans to clear the air enough for it to be breathable.

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“We’re very pleased: It seems like everything we’ve prepared for over the years with all our teams has appened much in the way it was anticipated,” Mr. Daniel told reporters at the mine site Tuesday evening. “Everytings going to work out as we’d always hoped. Everyone’s going to come up fine.”

Workers at Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan have extinguished a fire that trapped 20 miners at its Rocanville facility overnight. But it could still be hours to get those workers to the surface.

Nine people on the 29-person nightshift, including two supervisors and three maintenance workers, were saved by mine rescue shortly after the fire began Tuesday, as workers outfitted in protective gear reached them in refuge areas whose air was fresh enough to make them accessible.

Twenty mine operators remained underground in four refuge areas spread across an underground area of several kilometers. The refuge areas are sealed off from the rest of the mine and are equipped with water, canned food, bathroom facilities and landline.

The wooden reels of electrical cable at the centre of this fire are transported in the mine on steel skid plates like enormous spools of thread. In this case, a company spokesman said, the reels in question were being transported towards an area of the mine under large-scale expansion.

Fires in mines have become extremely rare, but not unheard of: A 2006 fire at Mosaic’s Esterhazy potash mine trapped 72 workers underground and temporarily shut down the mine’s electricity and phone lines, which meant no one underground could communicate with those on the surface, and fire crews didn’t know where the blaze was.

The last fire Mr. Perrin remembers at Rocanville’s potash mine would have been about 10 years ago, when a scoop tram caught fire. In the past, Mr. Perrin said, friction between the wooden reel and the plate on which it rested caused the wood to catch fire. To avoid this in future, the company put in place an expanded metal platform between wooden reel and steel plate.

As of early Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Perrin said, crews “know what’s burning but they don’t know how many of them, because smoke is very dense down there. … No one really knows for sure” yet what exactly precipitated Tuesday morning’s fire, he added. “I guess it got hot enough from the friction, it started to burn the wood. And here we are now.”

The Rocanville mine, located in southeastern Saskatchewan, produces standard and granular potash used in fertilizer and agricultural products. Potash Corp. is the world’s largest fertilizer maker.

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