Whitesburg KY

Rescue stirs thoughts of mountain miners

To the Editor:

I was but one of millions around the world last Tuesday and Wednesday who watched the miraculous rescue of the 33 trapped miners from a gold and copper mine in Copiapo, Chile, and I was so touched I had to put some of what I felt down on paper.

Late last month I visited a coal mine in Lynch where my dad worked when I was but a small child. The mine itself and all the equipment and other buildings associated with the mining industry are now quiet, no longer in use. It is now being used as a mining museum.

I could have gone on a tour back into the mine had I wanted, but I chose not to go back inside it. The docent of the museum saw me and my cousin and friend driving around the parking lot taking pictures and came out and off ered us a tour of the mine. He was a fantastic speaker and a font of information about mining, having spent 42 of his 82-year life span inside this mine. Retired miner Bob Lunsford gave each of us a token with a mining number on it and explained its usage.

He said each of the bronze tokens had the name of the mine and a number on it, which was specific for the miner and he would be required to place a supply inside his pockets when he checked into the lamp house for his safety equipment and assignments for that shift prior to going down into the mine.

The miner would place one of these numbered tokens on a hook on a tramcar loaded with coal so that when the car was brought outside they knew who to credit for the coal. At the end of their shift and safe return to the lamp house, the token would be placed on a board that identified the miner and showed that he had returned safely. In case of a mining disaster, of course, the token board would be empty so the token found inside the pants pocket of the miner, when found, would identify which miner had been killed or injured.

Years ago when I was very young and had been taken back to the mountains for a visit with our relatives, a bunch of us kids walked into an abandoned mine on my aunt and uncle’s place.

The mine did not go back into the mountain very far but it still produced enough coal that my mother’s family could gather enough from it to heat their house and cook their food. It was very scary back in that mine.

That mountain talked. You could shut your eyes and concentrate and you could hear creaks, popping sounds, groans and other noises coming from the rocks above and around you. It was really spooky. So when I watched the men down inside the mine being rescued I could identify with some of what they were going through.

My dad was an underground coal miner for 26 years in and around Letcher County before we moved to southern Indiana, so I had heard a lot of the dangers of coal mining. The husbands of two of my cousins had been killed in mining disasters and other cousin’s husbands had been injured from rock falls. My husband and I have owned our own drilling rigs since 1968, so I recognized what the rigs were doing down in Chile. I recognized which way the cable was going, either up with a miner or down with an empty cage, by the way the big wheel on top of the derrick was turning. It was just all so familiar to me.

I am sure it had been a very tense and frustrating wait by the miners for their rescue since the cave-in on August 5.

First they had to wait for a shaft to be drilled so they could respond and let those in the outside world know they were even alive. That hole also allowed those at the top of the mountain to send down water, food and medicines to keep them alive and give them some hope of eventual rescue. I’m sure none of them realized just how long that would take — 68 days to be exact. That is a very long time when you are in total or semidarkness underground, almost like being buried alive — and that is just what it could have turned out to be, but fortunately was not.

It was also a very stressful time for the wives, kids and other family members waiting topside for their rescue. Not being able to touch, kiss, talk to, or even see their family member. It had to be pure hell for all concerned.

The technology of the cage rescue had been used in a mining accident in Pennsylvania in 2002 and shared with the Chileans, so the rescue was not just a onesided event. It took the knowledge gained and experience in mining rescue from several nations to make this one the success it turned out to be.

In my own mind I dubbed the rescue capsule the “Lazarus Tube,” for obvious reasons. I even left the TV on mute so I did not have to listen to the repetitive drivel of the talking heads. I just let the actions of the rescued men, the family members and the president and other dignitaries of Chile and the other nations speak for themselves.

I was so glad the Chilean president stayed available topside through the entire rescue effort to be on hand to hug and hold every miner who was returned to the top. This was not just a quick hug on his part. He held the men tightly for some long moments and told them welcome home before releasing his hold.

How many men in one lifetime can say their president held them in his arms and gave him a big hug. This had to go a long way in making them feel good about being on the outside of that mine shaft again.

Another person I was proud of was the first man from the topside, the paramedic, who allowed himself to be lowered down a half mile into the mountain, fairly certain but not entirely sure that it would be a safe descent. What were his thoughts? I’m sure he will want to write a book about this experience.

At any rate, it was an exciting rescue and I felt so much empathy for the miners and their families and all those who contributed to the success of this mission that I just had to write something down.

I can only hope this will be the last time something like this occurs, but I’m almost sure that it will not be so. Mining is a very dangerous occupation and the miners who work underground in Appalachia have to be very brave to even think of going down sometimes miles inside a mountain to take their turn at mining coal and keeping our lights burning topside. My hat is off to all miners.

HELEN C. AYERS Freetown, Indiana

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