Illinois Mine Rescue Team members discuss WV mine disaster

By Carly O'Keefe - bio | email

INA, IL (KFVS) - While it's unlikely Illinois Mine Rescue Teams will be called to assist in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster; team members are monitoring the progress of rescue efforts in West Virginia.

"Methane blasts are unpredictable and hard to handle," said IDNR Mines and Minerals Mine Rescue Director John Smith.

Wednesday, a mine rescue seminar at Rend Lake College focused on mine explosions and what's been learned in past mine disasters. But when organizers planned the training event for Illinois Mine Rescue team members, they never imagined a massive rescue that encompasses all they teach would be underway in West Virginia.

"You always know it could happen, but you don't think about it every day or expect it to. So when it does, the level rises a bit, and you get a little nervous," said coal miner Jeremy Fletcher, a member of the Illinois Coal Mine Rescue Team.

"That's the worst we've had in recent history," said Smith. "And you've got to learn from it, learn what went wrong."

It's been reported that in 2009 alone, the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia had more than 450 safety violations totaling nearly $900,000 dollars in fines.

"I can go into any mine and write 10 violations before I get to the bottom. There's a little dust there, is it a violation? Yes. Is it hazardous? Probably not," Smith said.

According to Smith, it's not the number of violations each mine racks up per se; it's the type of violations that should raise a red flag.

"I understand they (Upper Big Branch) had a lot of ventilation violations. That's what you look for," said Smith.

Illinois mines have gone five years without a mining-related death, but teams of rescue workers throughout the state are ready to respond should disaster strike.

"If it happens, you want to be there to help. Myself or any other mine rescuer, you have much more knowledge so if it happens you're prepared for yourself and the other people you work with, to help them get out," said Fletcher.

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