Saskatchewan miners emerge with tale for the grandkids – by Nathan Vanderklippe (Globe and Mail – September 27, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

ROCANVILLE, SASK. — 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.”

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