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Union, company praise miners, rescuers as last of the stranded 39 reach the surface

‘The most important thing that comes out of the mine is the miner,’ says Vale’s Gord Gilpin, as company and Steelworkers Local 6500 announce joint investigation into incident that forced workers to remain underground for days when shaft became blocked.

At 60 years old, Perry Venedam was one of the oldest miners stranded underground at Vale’s Totten Mine on Sunday after a piece of equipment being slung to the bottom became lodged in the shaft and put the cage lift system out of operation.

Along with 39 other Vale employees, he was forced to use a secondary egress ladder system to ascend out of the mine with the help of mine rescuers, who ensured they were able to climb safely with the help of fall arrest equipment.

In a situation that has grabbed national media headlines, the Vale employees have gradually emerged from the mine this week, with the last group coming out at 4:45 a.m. Wednesday morning. 

With more than 30 years of underground experience under his belt, Venedam, a heavy equipment mechanic who’s been with Vale for 16 years, helped to keep the other employees calm as they ascended to the surface.

A younger man who was climbing along with him said his arms were starting to get sore, so Venedam said they should stop and take a break, that they were in no rush.

“The group that was ahead of us, I said ‘Hey, young guys, I’m coming through,’” said Venedam, who said he actually experienced a similar situation 20 years ago, when he was forced to climb ladders out of a mine. 

“There was a couple f-words said jokingly.”

In his case, Venedam was at the 3,150 level of the mine, and needed to climb 2,500 feet to the 650 level, where they were able to catch a cage to the surface. 

It took him three-and-a-half hours, starting Monday just before midnight, and emerging from the mine at around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. He said his arms and legs are still a little sore, but other than that he’s feeling just fine.

“When I started climbing, I think I was going too fast,” Venedam said. “I got out of wind. I got my wind back, took a break. The mine rescue is good. They were every couple hundred feet, asked us how we were doing, and if you want water. They were very, very helpful.”

While he was waiting for mine rescue to set up their operations, Venedam watched movies on his iPad, tried to get some sleep, and kept in contact with family members. He also helped the mine rescue team deliver food to his fellow workers.

Sudbury.com spoke to Venedam at Totten Mine this morning as he was gathering some of his belongings from the mine site.

Gord Gilipin, head of Vale’s Ontario mining operations, along with Steelworkers Local 6500 president Nick Larochelle, fielded questions from both local and national reporters at a press conference at Totten Mine Wednesday morning.

“I attended a safety summit recently, and somebody made a comment that really resonated to me personally, and that was the most important thing that comes out of the mine is the miner,” Gilpin said.

“I’m happy to confirm that through the massive efforts of a great team, we hit the mark. Although we never want to find ourselves in a situation like we’ve gone through and we continue to sort through, I can say I’ve never been more proud of our Vale employees, many of whom are volunteers for our mine rescue organization.”

Now that all of the miners are safely out of the mine, Vale and Local 6500 will conduct a joint investigation into the incident. 

“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” said Larochelle, who also praised the mine rescue team, and stressed that the miners were never “trapped,” as they were able to use the secondary egress ladders. 

“Who, what, when, where and why. We know that the significant incident investigation tool that we use will get all those questions answered. We’ll come to some conclusions and recommendations, and those recommendations will lead us to ensuring that a similar incident does not occur ever again.”

Gilpin said Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development officers have also been on site since the incident occurred, and have requested some information from Vale.

Presumably the ministry will also be conducting an investigation into the incident. Sudbury.com has reached out to ministry officials to find out more.

The mine cage lift was put out of commission after a scoop bucket being slung into the mine became lodged in the shaft at the 650 foot level, causing damage to about a 100-foot section of the shaft. 

Gilpin said no underground activities will be occurring at Totten Mine for now, and he’s not sure how long it will be out of commission.

He described the scene at the mine when the last worker emerged from its depths early this morning.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Gilpin said. “It’s obviously a very emotional ending to a very stressful exercise, with a lot of effort from a lot of people.

“So yeah, it was actually a great feeling to see that happen. There were a lot of smiles, a few laughs, fist-pumping, and congratulations going on.”

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