I write This is True (and edit the submissions of the contributing writers) each Sunday. On Mondays I write the surrounding material, like the Honorary Unsubscribe. It’s a fair amount of material, and it’s almost always possible to get it done in two days.
But not this week.
Some of you have seen an “incident” in the news this weekend — on Sunday: an accident at a mine in Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is our county seat. A lot of what came out in the media was simply incorrect: things that were misheard, misinterpreted, and/or misreported.
The accident wasn’t caused by an explosion; no one was “injured” and no one was “trapped” in the mine by any sort of “collapse” — no matter what you read or heard in the news.
The First Alert
Most of you know my wife and I are volunteer medics in the county. We’re also on the emergency management team, so I’m often called out on big incidents even if there are no injuries. So either way, I was destined to roll on this one.
I’ll set the record straight as much as I can from my point of view, and without revealing any private (such as health care) information. The details included here have been released by the county, or is non-medical information that I observed myself that will not violate anyone’s privacy.
It started at about 7:20 a.m. Sunday with a call for a miner 8,000′ (2,440m) inside a mountain, unconscious. Serious, to be sure, but outside my response area for a simple call.
Then the update: there “may” be six other miners affected. That’s now a serious “MCI” (as emergency responders term it: a Mass Casualty Incident) that needs a significant out-of-routine emergency response. Which also made it no longer outside my response area!
I knew it was unlikely they would need me as a medic. First, unless specially trained, regular medics don’t go into mines to rescue miners — and none of us are specially trained. That goes for firefighters and our extremely good Mountain Rescue team, too.
Yet all of us were paged out for the incident: EMS (for any victims needing medical help — and there were at least one of those, and maybe seven), two fire departments (because they have air packs), and our Mountain Rescue team (because they have the best offroad emergency vehicles in the county).
Naturally, the sheriff’s department was also called out: in Colorado, the sheriff has responsibility for on-the-scene management of emergencies.
In our county we have two ambulance crews on call. If those two are used, we can usually wrestle up two more crews to respond too — we have a total of four ambulances to cover the county’s 550 square miles (population about 4,500). By the time I got rolling, all four ambulances were manned and en route.
But it’s not that easy: mines tend to be in the mountains, not in town, and this case was no exception. The Revenue-Virginius Mine, which originally opened in 1876, is 6-7 miles southwest of Ouray, up quite a steep dirt road. The mine is at over 12,000′ (3,658m) elevation, in Governor Basin.
It’s a rich mine: by 1896 its mill was processing 300 tons of ore per day, and generated more than $300,000/year profits (in 1890s money!) for years. At its peak at the turn of the century, 300 miners lived in boarding houses on the property — buildings lighted by electricity, and equipped with heat and indoor plumbing.
By 1921, the mine had produced more than $28 million worth of gold and silver, but its mill burned down in 1920. It never recovered from that, and shut down in the 40s. There were many attempts to reopen the mine over the years, but silver prices wouldn’t support the economics of the idea — until 2011, when Star Mining took over operations; new mining started in February after a lot of setting up. By the time of the accident, more than 100 miners were working underground 20 hours a day, seven days a week, which provides a nice boost to the local economy.
The path into the mountains from Ouray to the mine.
Not Rushing In
On the way up, our EMS Chief, in a four-wheel-drive ambulance, chose a good wide spot in the road for a staging area, and ordered the following ambulances to stop there. It was a good choice: there were good radio communications between there and the mine, and between there and dispatch. It was reasonably close to the mine so that victims could be brought there in Mountain Rescue’s vehicles, but not so high up in the mountains that it would be difficult to get big, boxy ambulances to that spot.
When I got to town, I traded in my vehicle for the sheriff’s Communications Van, which has lots of radios as well as a warm place to put people if needed (and it was).
When I got to the Staging area, one of my EMS buddies, Greg, had already set himself up as Transport Chief: it was his job to figure out how to transport all of the victims to the hospital, as well as coordinate with the local hospitals to be sure they could take the number of victims we had. If all seven victims were severely injured, could one hospital handle them all? If not, then what?
That was going to be my job, but Greg had volunteered for it, and that was fine: I became his assistant.
Things got better, as well as worse: First, the closest hospital said they could handle all the victims we had. Second, there were no physical injuries, but rather the miners were victims of “gas.” Best of all, most were not in bad shape.
Sounds good, but the bad news was, there weren’t seven victims, but more like twenty. That made it the biggest MCI I have ever worked.
But we weren’t going to see victims very quickly: they were as much as 8,000′ in (well over a mile), and it would take awhile to get them out — and they can’t be all brought out at once.
So while we waited, Greg and I, as the Transport team, had to figure out something else: with every ambulance in the county on this call, what if someone else in the county calls 911 for a serious medical emergency? Who will handle that?
In our county, EMS is a separate agency from the fire departments — but one of the fire departments had called for help from the next county: since they didn’t have any airpacks anymore (they were all sent to the mine), they couldn’t safely handle fires. They asked Montrose Fire Department to cover their fire calls. Montrose FD also does EMS, so they sent an engine and an ambulance to cover any calls, fire or medical. Our first problem was solved before we could even ask for them to head our way.
How to Rescue Miners
OK, if medics, firefighters, and Mountain Rescue all don’t go underground to rescue miners, who the heck does? Mine Rescue. Usually miners themselves, they have special training and equipment needed to go in after their brother (and yes, sometimes, sister) miners to get them out.
Of course, not all need rescue: if they’re not badly injured or ill, they can often get out themselves the same way they get out when their shift is over. So part of our job there at Staging was to stop every vehicle that came up the road and see who they were. Those just out for a scenic drive were turned back: we didn’t need any congestion on that road as it got narrow.
But it was a relief to see truck after truck of Mine Rescue teams come in with their special equipment. They didn’t use the fire departments’ air packs: they’re great for fighting fires, but only last about 40 minutes before they need a new air bottle. That’s not enough to get 8000′ into a mountain, let alone enough to grab a fallen miner and then get 8,000′ back out. No, they have “rebreathers” that clean up the air and allow them to stay in bad air for hours, if necessary. It was a good idea to think of the fire department packs, but now we know they won’t work.
We heard from the mine that first group of miners was out, and one was serious enough that the medics on scene decided to fly him out on a chopper. We have three medevac choppers in the area, in Montrose, Durango, and Grand Junction, and we had already called in the first one to stand by.
Our medical chopper pilots work in the mountains, and they’re pretty darned good at knowing where they can go. And they could go practically all the way to the mine entrance. Choppers are great for someone seriously ill or injured that really needs that sort of transport. But they’re very expensive, and in very short supply. They were reserved for those who really needed them.
So while one was flown out, Mountain Rescue brought the rest of the first load down in a truck to Staging so they could be taken out by ambulance. By then we knew there were at least 20 possible victims, but at least this group was stable: walking, coughing, on oxygen — and definitely in need of medical checkups. Greg and I decided they could all pile into one ambulance and go.
But there was a minor hitch: the medic in back was worried that with an ambulance full of big guys with respiratory issues brought on by “gas” exposure, what if one (or more!) took a turn for the worse? Could she have a second medic go along? I asked one of the Mountain Rescue guys, who I knew was an EMT, if he could go with her. Yep! He jumped in, and they took off.
I turned to Greg: I’ll bet every ambulance crew will want to have an extra medic for these transports. Let’s get some extras here. How? I asked dispatch to put out a page not for ambulances (they were all here already!), but to all off-duty medics to come to Staging.
Seconds later, my pager went off. A half-hour later, the first one arrived. Then two more, and then another. One of the guys on my First Responder squad. A medic from the Mountain Rescue team who is a midwife by trade. An off-duty emergency room nurse who has a pager for big emergencies. Well, this was a big emergency! But we now had an extra medic for every ambulance, plus a spare to provide relief for anyone who got tired out. We used them all.
The hospital then called us to say what the “gas” was: carbon monoxide. CO can be absolutely deadly, and it’s sneaky, since it doesn’t really give the victims any real symptoms. They fall asleep …and wake up dead.
We had already been giving the miners oxygen, but that was reinforced: the only way to really flush out CO is to use lots of oxygen. Ambulances have a limited supply, but we raided the ambulance base and got all of the extra portable oxygen bottles we had. That still may not be enough, we worried, so we had the Montrose ambulance and fire engine drop off all their spares too, so that ambulances passing by could pick up a couple if needed. They did.
But now that the nearest hospital knew what the primary problem was (and finding out how many victims there were!), they let us know they really couldn’t accept all of the patients, as previously thought. They wanted some to go to the next hospital down the road, in Delta, 65 miles away, and another group to go to the next hospital farther than that, in Grand Junction — more than 100 miles away.
That didn’t really faze us: that’s pretty standard for MCIs. Greg and I divvied up the patients among the ambulances and sent them on their way as they arrived. All told, there were 22 in need of hospital treatment. One went by air, and 19 by ground via our four ambulances to the three hospitals. Only four of those actually needed to be admitted to stay the night, all in “fair” condition.
We were eight hours into the incident, and there were still two victims: the ones deepest in.
Could They Still Be Alive?
The Mine Rescue team got all the way in to the original miner who called for help in the first place, and (my guess — I don’t have any confirmed information on this [but see update, below]) another who I think tried to rescue a buddy. But it was too late: they were dead.
Nick Cappanno was 34; Rick Williams was 59. I didn’t know either one of them myself, but many in town definitely did. (When I got back into town later to clean up, things were pretty quiet.) But before we could wrap things up, we still had an important job to do.
By that time the first ambulance was back, but everyone needing hospital transport was gone. Yet that ambulance was still needed: there were two men left in the mine, the two who the Mine Rescue team were called in for. They brought their brothers out, and gave us the bodies. Another chopper was standing by just in case, but it left empty: they only take the living.
We brought the two bodies down to a temporary morgue in a solemn procession. It was led by the sheriff’s deputy who was Incident Commander for the rescue, followed by our EMS Chief, followed by the ambulance with the bodies, and I took up the rear. We all got out at the edge of town and helped to gently unload the bodies and present them to the waiting coroner, who soon declared the cause of death: carbon monoxide poisoning.
You often hear about great rescues. You rarely hear about the down and dirty part: recovering the bodies so they can be returned to the families. Yet that’s an important part of the job to be done with sensitivity and dignity.
The Rumors Start Immediately
During a lull period, I had looked at my smartphone (yes, amazingly I had 3G data service at Staging!) and saw there was already a Google news alert for me — I have them send me alerts of any news with the word “Ouray” in it.
I looked at the lineup of stories. “Mine Blast Kills 2 Colorado Miners, Injure 20” several of the headlines blared.
Wait…. Blast? What blast?
I knew there had not been an explosion. But it was easy to figure out what happened: the mine told dispatch that they had done blasting the day before and maybe there were “gasses” left over from that which could be an issue. Some reporter listening on a police scanner when dispatch relayed that information to us obviously heard it and made an assumption — a bad one.
That erroneous conclusion got picked up by another newspaper, and then a TV station, and then another and another like a badly played game of telephone. Mine disaster that killed two and 20 more sent to hospitals? Well, that has to be due to injuries, right? And a “blast” fits! Run with it!
Except there were no injuries unless someone bumped their head or scraped their knuckles on their way out. I didn’t hear anyone complain of even a minor “injury.”
Miners had to be rescued? Then obviously they were trapped! There thus had to be a collapse of the tunnel! Nope: no one was stuck underground, and there was no collapse. It was just a long way out, and two of the guys couldn’t get out by themselves — someone had to go after them: the very definition of rescue.
What Really Happened?
What caused the CO buildup? Simply, we don’t know. It could have been the explosives from the day before. It could have been that they broke a seal into a different tunnel that had “bad air” that had been there for decades. It could have been something else entirely.
But it doesn’t do much good to guess, like the news media did: that’s why the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is investigating, along with the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety. That’s their job. I’ll patiently await what they find out, because that sort of investigation is important: it will tell us what needs to be done in the future to help keep it from happening again. Our smartphones and computers and HDTVs and other everyday tools that we take for granted need the metals that come from hard rock mines like the Revenue-Virginius.
So That’s How I Spent Sunday
I spent my entire day on this one incident — and then helping to clean up and get the ambulances stocked up and back in service. Our oxygen generator has been running constantly as we fill up our tanks again.
Having been paged out of bed, I didn’t have any breakfast. The thought of food didn’t occur to me until someone coming up the hill dropped off a big box: “Want a sandwich?” It was about 2:00 p.m. Local grocery stores, restaurants, and residents sent up food and coffee and soft drinks — even candy bars — to feed the rescuers. “And anytime you need it, let us know — anytime.” There was so much that when we gathered today at noon to debrief — what did we learn? What can we do better next time? — there were plenty of leftovers to feed us all again.
I’m extremely proud of the community for coming together, and of all the responders, medical and otherwise, who pitched in to make this happen, and incredibly smoothly at that. An MCI with 22 victims, and we took care of our own, by ourselves, without calling for others to help — because we didn’t need to. There’s no shame in calling for help, and as it turned out the Montrose crew ran two calls for us while we were busy, but they didn’t need to take anyone to the hospital. I’m extremely proud of our crews.
Since I did have phone service during the incident, I was able to keep tabs on my bride: she had been out of state for a few days, and was driving home on Sunday. I checked on her now and then as she moved along. She knew not to call me, since I could be busy at any time, so I called her a couple of times.
I finally got home barely before dark — just 20 minutes before she did. I collapsed into bed and slept hard, but woke up before I wanted to. And got a shower, caught up on email, and then headed to town for the debriefing.
And that’s why I didn’t write this week’s issue, or edit the stories from the contributors. So, my apologies to the Premium subscribers who didn’t get an issue tonight. Now that I have this load off my chest, I’ll work on stories tomorrow and the Premium edition will almost certainly be done and come out tomorrow night. I’m fine: just very, very tired; I’m confident you all understand!
The Premium edition of This is True came out Tuesday night. 🙂
The Telluride Watch (the same local newspaper that started the erroneous reports, which were picked up by the Denver Post and other outlets), is really making up for things with lots of updates. This week they reported that the four miners who were admitted to the hospital were all discharged by the next day.
Further, based on a preliminary report from MSHA, they confirmed my “guess” about what happened to the two who were killed: the younger miner, Cappanno, was the first who got into trouble. He had only been working at the mine for “a few weeks,” the paper says. The older miner, Williams, had recently been promoted to foreman.
“When [Cappanno] did not emerge, the shift foreman went in search of him,” the MSHA report said. “Eventually they were both found by other miners working in the area, and those miners immediately evacuated the mine.” Which, of course, helps explain how the other miners were exposed to the carbon monoxide. They tried, but failed, the Watch reported, to save the two other men.
Not the Only Ambulance Call
Alas, but the mine incident was not to be last tragedy in Ouray this week. Wednesday afternoon, Zina Lahr, 23, went missing. She had gone out for errands, and didn’t come home. She still hadn’t been heard from by morning, so our Mountain Rescue team was mobilized to find her.
I was listening to the police channel as they checked her known hangouts — and then a hiker on a trail above town called 911 to say he had found a body. Lahr was recovered by medics after apparently falling. If that’s not tragic enough, consider this story — the lead story in the 2 January 2011 issue of This is True:
Colorado State Senator Suzanne Williams, 65, may be facing criminal charges after a car crash near Amarillo, Texas. Williams was driving a compact SUV that drifted over the center line and smashed head-on into a large SUV. A passenger in the other vehicle, a 30-year-old pregnant woman who grew up in Colorado, was killed; her baby was delivered by C-section and is in critical condition. Williams says she “didn’t remember” the crash and doesn’t know how it happened. As vice-chair of the senate’s Transportation Committee, Williams has pushed for improved driver safety during her time in office, including stricter seatbelt laws. When asked why her son and two grandchildren were not seatbelted in her car at the time of the crash (two were ejected), she said she “didn’t have time” to discuss it. (RC/Amarillo Globe-News, KUSA Denver, Westword) …Let’s just say her political career is also on borrowed time.
That happened the day after Christmas 2010. Zina died just under three years later, the week before Thanksgiving. The irony isn’t just that the senator’s victim, Brianna Michelle Gomez, is also a native of Ouray, but also that she and Zina are sisters. Another crushing blow to her family, as well as her extended family — the residents of Ouray.
What criminal charges did Sen. Williams face? Three misdemeanor counts, according to the Denver Post: one count of driving on the wrong side of the road while not passing, and two counts of seatbelt violations over not belting in her grandkids. She pleaded no contest to the first charge (the seatbelt charges were dismissed!); she paid a $200 fine plus $68 in court costs, and is unfortunately still a Colorado State Senator.
October 2014 Update
The U.S. Department of Labor fined Star Mine $1.077 million in the death of Nick Cappano and Rick Williams — and more may be coming.
“It doesn’t mean the investigation is entirely closed,” said Joseph Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. “We’re holding out the possibility that further actions may be taken.”
“There are a number of mines all across the United States that have implemented sound safety habits — this is the mine that did not,” he said. “They had a number of opportunities to take action, but they failed to follow basic safety procedures [and] we believe these deaths were entirely preventable.”
According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the miners were briefed on November 13, 2013, about how to dispose of 1,600 pounds of old explosives: they were told to call the manufacturer for advice, and not detonate them underground in an “open air” burn. On November 16, the report says, the explosives were detonated underground in an “open air” burn without talking to the manufacturer first. There was not proper ventilation to clear the smoke, and the next day, the miners were overcome by the carbon monoxide from the detonation.
MSHA’s final report on the accident has not yet been issued.
Star Mine Operations has apparently gotten out of the mining business: this summer, it sold the Revenue Mine to Fortune Minerals of Canada for a $14 million down payment, plus $36.8 million in deferred quarterly installments depending on yield over time.
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