Mining accidents 101
January 6, 2006 1:26 PM   Subscribe

My brother claims that the miners who died "could have walked right out". Is he full of it?
posted by goethean to Science & Nature (43 answers total)
 
Is that all he said? I mean, what, does he think they committed suicide? I think we have to understand your brother's argument before we can rebut it.
posted by WCityMike at 1:30 PM on January 6, 2006


Yes. What is he talking about? Is he insinuating suicide?
posted by geoff. at 1:31 PM on January 6, 2006


No. Cave trolls don't teach their wallbending magic to just anybody.

(Seriously, what on earth is he talking about? ME NEED MI.)
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:33 PM on January 6, 2006


Has he read any coverage? Does he actually understand the basic facts of mines (that is, they're kind of deep...and they're located under the earth)? Does he think they committed suicide? Does he think there was some sort of fail-safe "escape hatch" or blinking EXIT sign that they were too stupid to notice?
posted by scody at 1:35 PM on January 6, 2006


He probalby thinks that because they died "behind a screen to block Carbon Monoxide". However, I bet that there was something else on the other side of that screen than a nice route topside. Otherwise, well, we're left with the possibility that the miners, rescuers, reporters, heck, everyone involved, is a total and complete moron.

Is that what your friend is suggesting?
posted by Four Flavors at 1:36 PM on January 6, 2006


i don't know anything about this apart from the bbc reports i've just read, but couldn't he mean that if they had kept walking for the exit, rather than staying put and waiting for rescue, then they could have survived?

(it's not clear to me why they stayed where they were - perhaps they were trapped?)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:43 PM on January 6, 2006


Yes, he is. The miners could no more walk out than the astronauts on Apollo 1 could have just stepped out of the capsule.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:46 PM on January 6, 2006


Hadn't the tunnel collapsed? Weren't they digging through rubble to get to them?
posted by bshort at 1:46 PM on January 6, 2006


> Is that what your friend is suggesting?

He's my brother.

Yeah, it does sound stupid, doesn't it? I just actually just wanted to know if this was a meme that had any reasoning behind it. His job involves engineering mining equipment, so yes, I assume that he does know the basics of was a mine is. He claims that the mining company trained the miners to "hunker down" and wait for rescuers instead of "walking out". I'm afraid that that's all I've got.
posted by goethean at 1:50 PM on January 6, 2006


couldn't he mean that if they had kept walking for the exit, rather than staying put and waiting for rescue, then they could have survived?

Yes, exactly.
posted by goethean at 1:52 PM on January 6, 2006


They stayed where they are because they were trapped, yes. The wikipedia article is a good summary of what happened.
posted by geoff. at 1:53 PM on January 6, 2006


There was no collapse and they were not digging through rubble. The rescuers were slowed becuase every so many feet they had to stop and check the air to make certain it was breathable. My understanding is that the problem was from the ventilations system, which runs throughout the mine. The workers who perished knew that the air in front of them was not breathable, so they went as far from the leak as they could and built their temporary wall, and waited, as apparently they were trained to do.

Some miners did apparently walk out, including the brothers of one of the miners who died.

The whole this is so sad.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:57 PM on January 6, 2006


Yes but dpx.mfx, the gas was compustible and, if I understand correctly, they did not have oxygen tanks but generators which could explode in the gas and/or not generate enough oxygen.
posted by geoff. at 2:01 PM on January 6, 2006


My God, the whole situation sounds so much more terrible than I ever realised.
posted by Acey at 2:08 PM on January 6, 2006


the wikipedia article does not say that they were (physically) trapped. the only time that word is used it could equally well mean "detained" or "waiting". and there's no mention of rubble.

i suspect it's one of those things where someone has to make a guidline. on average, is it better to try to walk through dangerous levels of CO or stay put and try to shield yourself? no doubt the answer varies from situation to situation. and perhaps even in this situation it was the correct approach.

so even if it is true, and they could have escaped if they'd ignored their training, i'm not sure it makes much difference. some people like to complain that people who make rules are stupid. but sometimes you have to make a rule that works best on average; and that means that in some cases you get it wrong.

on the other hand, if they have evidence that "on average" the training is wrong, then they should say so.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:08 PM on January 6, 2006


There was no rubble or cave-in preventing the miners from walking out. What stopped them was the air quality, or lack thereof. I don't have any idea what would have been needed for them to survive the journey out on their own, but I've got to assume that these guys wanted to live and wouldn't have sat on their asses if it was as simple as walking out.
posted by Justinian at 2:12 PM on January 6, 2006


geoff. writes "They stayed where they are because they were trapped, yes."

But they were trapped by high levels of CO, not by a physical barrier, right? It's not entirely clear from that Wikipedia article...

The Wikipedia article suggests that the levels of CO were right at the threshold for toxicity, so perhaps your brother is suggesting that if they had just walked out, they would have limited their exposure and been able to make it out of the mine.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:16 PM on January 6, 2006


It's a big mine, but assuming they bolted... I don't see why they couldn't have made it. If they were too slow or couldn't hold their breath long enough, they would have passed out quickly from the CO.
posted by phrontist at 2:21 PM on January 6, 2006


phrontist: you realize they were about 2 miles down the shaft, right?

I don't know about you, but I can't run two miles while holding my breath. Hell, I can barely make it to one!
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:23 PM on January 6, 2006


Actually, mr_roboto, the article states "Tests taken through holes drilled from the surface showed that the air near where the miners were last known to be stationed contained 1,300 parts per million of carbon monoxide (400 parts per million is the maximum considered safe)."
That's just over three times what is considered safe, if my math-fu doesn't fail me.
Hindsight is 20-20 and maybe knowing what we know now, we can say they should have just walked out. But all they knew was "between us and the surface is a tunnel of toxic and possibly flammable/combustible gases. Best to wait it out and let the company get us out."
posted by UnclePlayground at 2:25 PM on January 6, 2006


UnclePlayground writes "Actually, mr_roboto, the article states 'Tests taken through holes drilled from the surface showed that the air near where the miners were last known to be stationed contained 1,300 parts per million of carbon monoxide (400 parts per million is the maximum considered safe).'"

Oh yeah; you're right. I was reading the part where it said "Hatfield indicated that carbon monoxide levels in the area where the miners were found was in the range of 300-400 ppm when the rescue team arrived." So, presumably, they had escaped the high levels of CO and holed themselves up in a region where the concentration was lower.

Without knowing the distribution of the gas in the mine shaft, it's really impossible to say whether or not they could have gotten out.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:32 PM on January 6, 2006


You know, I was all set to laugh at goethean's brother but after reading more, he may have been right.

After the explosion, the guys who had been on the second cart proceeded DOWN the shaft looking for the other miners. They made it to 9000 feet before turning back. The "trapped" miners were at something like 12,000 feet.

So a bunch of miners higher up in the shaft with the exact same equipment made it 3/4 of the way down to the trapped miners immediately after the explosion and then all 9000 feet back up the shaft with no ill health effects whatsoever.

I'm afraid to say it, but it seems from that information it may have been possible the miners could indeed have walked out. It's clear that it was quite possible to walk from 9000 feet to the top with no equipment. So the question is whether the miners could have made it from 11 or 12000 feet to 9000 feet. Given that one miner survived for 40+ hours at 12000 feet and it would take only about 15 minutes to walk from 12000 feet to 9000 feet...

Well, I don't think its as cut and dried as I thought that they "obviously" couldn't have walked out. It was probably a judgment call. The miners couldn't have known whether the air above them was breathable. What if they had started up the shaft and found the air completely toxic at 8000 feet? Yes, with perfect knowledge perhaps they could have made it out, but they didn't have perfect knowledge.
posted by Justinian at 2:33 PM on January 6, 2006


I Love Tacos: Note that it was clearly possible to breath the air at 9000 feet: the other miners walked down the shaft immediately after the explosion, and then walked from 9000 feet up to the surface.
posted by Justinian at 2:34 PM on January 6, 2006


Thinking about it, your brother could be making this kind of argument (which is a lot more charitable than I initially read it):

It's sad, because the miners didn't have to be trapped. While there was no way for them to know this given limited information and no outside communication, the situation wasn't as bad as their assessment from the inside. Instead of holing up, which was the only thing they could have done with their information, had they pushed ahead they might have made it.

As far as I can tell, this is not accurate for the CO levels would certainly have killed them along the two mile stretch (again, everything needs to be assessed with extreme skepticism at this point). The point is, the explosion didn't seem to have caused a blockage, but there's no way for the miners to have known that since they couldn't travel ahead to find out.
posted by allen.spaulding at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2006


Justinian writes "Given that one miner survived for 40+ hours at 12000 feet and it would take only about 15 minutes to walk from 12000 feet to 9000 feet..."

Yeah, except that somewhere in that 3000 feet, there's a leak from the abandoned shaft, dumping CO into the mine. If the concentration was high enough, there's no way that they could have walked for 15 minutes. All the miners know is that as they get closer and closer to the leak, the CO concentration keeps increasing.

It would have been a hell of a gamble to keep going, and it's not at all clear that it would have worked out.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2006


if it were possible to walk out of the mine, why couldn't anyone walk in with suitable breathing equipment?
posted by jimw at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2006


Your brother seems to assume that being trapped by CO is somehow less of a problem then being trapped by rubble. I don't see why this is so. If you are trapped by rubble, you are physically prevented from leaving the area. If you are trapped by CO, you will succumb to the gas, collapse, and die if you try to leave the area. Thus you fail to leave the area in both scenarios. The latter is no less of a constraint.

In some bizarro world where the consequences of an act aren't considered when you are evaluating the act your brother is right, it was physically possible for their bodies to move past the gas. In our world, they were not able to just get up and leave. They were able to commit suicide by walking into a cloud of toxic gas, that does not equal leaving.

They quite reasonably, and unfortunately tragically, recognized that they didn't really have a choice at all.
posted by oddman at 3:07 PM on January 6, 2006


Mr Roboto: Sure, if they're breathing air with a high concentration of carbon monoxide. But it is unclear to me that the concentrations were at levels that would prevent walking for 15 minutes. The HIGHEST concentrations I've heard reports of are in the neighborhood of 1300 ppm. At 1300 ppm, you would probably be getting sick and dizzy after 15 minutes but I don't think you would pass out. And that's if the concentration was at 1300 ppm the whole distance up to 9000 feet.

That is leaving aside the issue of equipment. If they had breathing filters - and I've heard conflicting reports about this - then that would have made a big difference.

I'm not saying they could easily have walked out, I'm saying that the proposition in the initial question isn't as ridiculous as I originally would have assumed. I think it's possible - unlikely maybe - but possible the miners could have made it out if they had started walking up the shaft immediately after the explosion.

That's not what they're supposed to do, of course.
posted by Justinian at 3:16 PM on January 6, 2006


After the explosion, the guys who had been on the second cart proceeded DOWN the shaft looking for the other miners. They made it to 9000 feet before turning back. The "trapped" miners were at something like 12,000 feet.

if it were possible to walk out of the mine, why couldn't anyone walk in with suitable breathing equipment?

What are we missing, why did the second cart turn back, why didn't someone with suitable equipment walk in? Was there some physical danger or threat of such beyond the existence of the gas?
posted by scheptech at 3:18 PM on January 6, 2006


I've double checked and the best information I can find is that the miners had masks that would have provided an hour of breathable air at the concentrations of carbon monoxide we're talking about.
posted by Justinian at 3:19 PM on January 6, 2006


In The Jesse Helms's AskMe thread I pointed out that carbon monoxide can be absorbed through the skin, so it wasn't just a matter of strapping on a mask and walking through it.

In any event, the mine in question was severely deficient by federal standards, having been fined for violations that were many times the industry average. There should have been more ventilation shafts, and there should have been escape and rescue plans on file.

To the extent that your brother is suggesting that some other set of procedures could have saved these men, he's probably right. Whether that was "walking out" isn't clear to me.
posted by dhartung at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2006


Justinian, do you have a link?
posted by goethean at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2006


I used to work around reactors that used CO to synthesize fuel. For safety purposes, we had sensors that continually monitored the room the reactors were in and so at any time could see what the concentration of CO was. Also, the CO was stored in a large tube trailer outside that had to be swapped out every several weeks. In short, I have suffered CO poisoning several times.

The worst was in swapping out that tube trailer -- one step in this procedure involved venting a line with 2000 psi of 100% CO for about 2 minutes into the atmosphere. This generally shouldn't be a problem if you stand far enough away from it since the diffusion rate is going to be crazy high. Once, however, I stupidly stood downwind (and several feet below) of the vent line. Again, the wind was high enough that it shouldn't have posed much of a problem but I still wound up with one of the worst, non-migrane headaches of my life -- generally sleepy, couldn't think straight, feeling pretty stupid, head in pain. It also wasn't unusual for the reactor room to creep up to around 30 ppm (though never above 100 as that would have triggered a shutdown and cessation of CO flow into the room) in the general course of doing the daily duties and there were a few times that I know that i got poisoned from that too.

So, if the mine had areas where the gas levels reached 1300 ppm, yeah, I'd call that a barrier.
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 4:11 PM on January 6, 2006


I think the possible combustability was as large as the toxic gas problem. They took extreme measures going down the shaft so as to not ignite it. The miners surely knew this and I'm betting that the oxygen generators had some electrical component that could have combusted the gas. I wonder the feasability of placing large fans or something similar near the shaft to force venihilation.

It'd be interesting to see what specific safety violations were present. There should have been many fail-safes, from my understanding, to prevent this.
posted by geoff. at 4:15 PM on January 6, 2006


The miners surely knew this and I'm betting that the oxygen generators had some electrical component that could have combusted the gas.

Not necessarily an intrinsic safety (electrical) risk.
Having worked on chemical oxygen generators, I can tell you that its the heat (> 450 deg C) of the reaction that would cause a flammability problem in an explosive atmosphere.
posted by fullysic at 6:13 PM on January 6, 2006


Hmmm. the way this story has been reported, it always sounded like it was a cave-in. From this thread it sounds like wasnt the case. Befire I go any further I should mention that I am deeply out of my element here so if my question is particularly stupid I apologize.

So, if the concern is CO poisoning why not send someone down to save them one at a time in a space suit or scuba outfit?
posted by herting at 10:59 PM on January 6, 2006


some people like to complain that people who make rules are stupid.

And many, many people can't accept the fact that tragic things happen to perfectly good people through no fault of their own. See: Hurricane Katrina.
posted by Eamon at 6:38 AM on January 7, 2006


Yes, they were 2000 feet from fresh air. They followed procedures, though, and waited for rescue where they were, not knowing whether there was fresh air or a raging fire 2000 feet away.

Source: New York Times:
They apparently had enough oxygen in their respirators to last an hour or more and no wall of debris blocked their escape, mine company officials said. They could not have known it, but there was breathable air inside the mine, possibly just 2,000 feet away.

Cut off from communications with the outside, surrounded by thick smoke and deep darkness, they might have believed a fire was raging ahead of them, or that the mine roof was in danger of collapsing. They might have become disoriented by carbon monoxide poisoning.
(Bold emphasis mine)
posted by Doohickie at 9:40 AM on January 7, 2006


That matches what I've read; an hour of breathable air in their respirators and maybe 15 minutes from breathable air. But they didn't know it.

Very unfortunate, very sad.
posted by Justinian at 9:46 AM on January 7, 2006


I wouldn't call it terrible or very bad. Tragic or unfortunate perhaps. Terrible or Very Bad would be if miners were severely physically injured like being crushed only in a kidney area of the abdomen, having to pull yourself free and sever your own entrails with a pick axe to crawl futily to safety (heaven forbid that should happen). I'd say that passing out in a sleepy or lightheaded state from oxygen deficiency (but being able to breathe, as it were) is quite possibly one of the best ways to unnaturally die.
posted by vanoakenfold at 12:30 PM on January 7, 2006


Ever been down in a coal mine, vanoakenfold? Mines are cold and wet. Also damned dark.

CO poisoning isn't the worst way to go. Waiting for hours in the cold, dark and wet, unable to move to keep warm, knowing the odds...that meets my definition of terrible and very bad.
posted by QIbHom at 1:21 PM on January 7, 2006


If I was one of the miners, and I had a meter that gave me a realtime readout of CO in the air, (and I understood what the readings meant in terms of physical effects on my body), then I would feel empowered enough to make an attempt to try to get out on my own. (Depending on many circumstances, I might abort it as too risky, but I would make an attempt).

Lacking that information, I am in a mine with an invisible enemy that I cannot sense in any way (CO alarms are not helpful here - they just say that there is a problem). I have no idea where the problem is, it seems my best bet is to follow proceedure.

And most of the time it is the case (I would hope) that following that proceedure pays off. This time, I drew the short straw, and proceedure kills me, instead of saving me.

I would try to walk out if I had a source of information, but I wouldn't try to walk out without a source of information. My understanding is that the miners had no source of information, so in their shoes, I would share their fate.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:14 PM on January 7, 2006


I dont know if anyone is still reading this, but my basic premise was confirmed on tonight's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann". The trapped miners were about 1500 feet from fresh air and could almost certainly have simply walked out... if they had only known. They were holed up in practically the only part of the mine with fatal CO levels.

So goethean's brother was correct; the miners could have walked right out if only they had known. In this instance, the training procedures actually killed them rather than saving them.

That's tragic, plain and simple.
posted by Justinian at 5:26 PM on January 9, 2006


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