The Lac Des Iles Mine Rescue team has learned of a life-threatening problem in one of the mine's shafts.
Three men sustained major injuries with the most serious of them being some kind of serious head trauma. The team, led by captain Gord Paddock, has little time to assess the situation and make the right decision.
Everyone has a job – from calming down one of the injured workers to lifting another onto a gurney.
It takes teamwork.
Story continues after the video...
Less than 30 minutes has passed and the team has secured the most severely injured to the gurney and are working to bring him up.
The test is over.
Teammates congratulate one another on a job well done and get ready for the next scenario at the Northern Ontario Mine Rescue Competition.
The competition, held several weeks ago at the Neebing Arena, pit the wits and skills of the Mine Rescue teams from eight different mines in the region. The scenarios are different every year and remain secret to ensure other competitors don’t learn any details ahead of time.
Since it is a competition, the public are asked to keep this secret so few people besides family, friends and fellow miners have seen the full three-day event. Even many of the details within this story were barred from publication until recently in an effort to ensure that other teams do not learn of specifics of certain scenarios.
Bernie Schmachtel, a superintendent at Lac Des Iles, has worked with the company for the past six years but has worked in Mine Rescue for more than 30. He helped to organize the Mine Rescue competition this year.
It was the second time that the Thunder Bay and Algoma district and the first that event was hosted in the city.
He’s had lots of competition experience and worked to coach the team as they prepared to compete. He says when someone is in mine rescue they are required to have at least six training sessions a year to ensure they are fully prepared if the worst happens.
“For the competition you spend a whole lot more training probably three weeks more of extra training plus study the Mine Rescue book on your own,” Schmachtel says. “There’s a lot of work involved. It gets on a lot of wives nerves. They probably know as much about Mine Rescue as the guys do.”
The winning team goes on to the provincials against the other district champions.
The Lac Des Iles team hasn’t gone to the provincials yet, but Schmachtel hopes that that this year would be the year for them to go.
The most challenging aspect of the competition is trying not to second-guess yourself, he says.
“A lot of guys start reading into things and look into problems that may or may not exist,” he says.
“The whole idea of the competition is to give you that extra training so if you do have an emergency you’re going to be well prepared for anything.”
Schmachtel gave the example of what happened to the Chilean miners in 2010 who were trapped underground for 69 days. He says mine rescue teams don’t just put out fires but have to deal with medical situations and deal with disasters as such as the one in Chile.
Thankfully, they haven’t had to put that training to the test just yet, he says.
Dale Gagne, a trainer at the Red Lake gold mine for the past six years, doesn’t have the years of experience of Schmachtel but he has gone to the provincial competition.
He says that’s where the rookie team was pushed to the limit.
Once during the competition when he and his team were being shuttled back to the hotel the bus stopped outside a five storey building used for firefighters to train and were told the test was continuing.
They had only a few hours to assess the situation and rescue the distressed person.
He says it was an intense situation.
In order to have a good team, it comes down to having a good captain with the experience to lead during the situation, he said.
“I think you can tell by the layers of sweat dripping off the end of their noses that this is definitely a challenging event,” Gagne said.
“It’s nerve wracking. I don’t think there’s been an easy problem ever. It’s a lot different when you have the mask on too. Sitting here as a spectator the situation is pretty easy to figure out but when you put on that mask you tend to have tunnel vision and that’s where your training comes in.”
Compared to real life situations, the games are much harder because of the added pressure of having people around judging how you are going about the task and having spectators take pictures, he said.
Gilbert Wahl, safety security director for Westdome Gold Mines, has lived through both sides of the competition. The 60-year-old father of two has participated in the games but has now taken a different role by helping to organize it.
Even though he can’t perform the tasks like he used to, being a part of the games in some fashion is what’s important to him because he said it’s an important part of mine rescue.
“I was hooked the first 10 minutes into the course,” Wahl said. “I said ‘this is for me.’ I think the word rescue really got me. It’s like when you are a little kid where you wanted to be a fireman. I love being underground and I got to help my fellow employee.”
He said he misses being in the competitions but still glad he’s involved in some way.
“At my age now it would hurt like hell,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like hockey players. We’re not all Gordie Howe.”
In his 40 years in mine rescue, Wahl said he had only one situation where he had to put his training to the test. He and his team had to go investigate reports about a fire that broke out in a mine. They went to go check it out but by the time they arrived the fire was already out.
Wahl said working in a mine can sometimes be depicted as a dangerous profession in movies but Ontario has high standards for safety and in reality it is a safe job to do.
“You want to hone your skills the best way to do it is to go to a competition,” Wahl said.
“The guys in the mine all look up to these guys. It’s all about respect. In a mine if something serious were to happen these guys are the first ones to be called.”
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