This story is retold with permission from Terry regarding a truck fire in the underground copper mine in New South Wales, Australia.
Whereas most of you shuffle into an elevator trying to avoid eye contact before your morning coffee kicks in, travelling to depths hundreds of meters below the Earth’s surface is just part of a regular workday morning for a miner like me. This day started like any other, a few unrepeatable jokes in the meeting room as everyone listened to the shift supervisor, followed by the task of putting on all your PPE, and finally tagging on. It was just another day at the ‘office’.
There is no denying working underground is demanding. With long hours and harsh conditions, not everyone is suited to the job. Fortunately, I worked with a strong crew – they were hard workers and always up for a laugh.
The day continued just like any other. That was until I noticed a change in the shift supervisor and headed over to investigate. I’ll never forget what he said: “Terry, I’ve been notified of a possible truck fire up the decline, can you go see what’s happening?” I followed orders and began making my up the decline, away from my team. At this stage, it was unclear how the truck fire had occurred or how bad it was.
All too soon, smoke began to appear in front of me, and within a split second it began engulfing everything around me – it felt almost suffocating. Immediately I spun around and made my way to the nearest refuge chamber.
I could see the flashes of green from the strobe light of the chamber up ahead welcoming me. I made my way inside, and as I shut the door behind me, I could feel the relief washed over. The chamber was built to hold twenty but there were only six of us inside; safe, but eagerly waiting to find out more.
We were able to talk to the control room on the surface, check off who is safe, find out a bit of what is going on, but within less than half an hour in there was nothing but silence. Communications were lost. The fire was worse than we thought.
As a miner you’re trained in the operation of a refuge chamber for this very instance. You learn about what a scrubbing system does, the multiple sources of breathable air, gas monitoring, and the importance of temperature control. Yet, it’s hard to know how you’ll react in an emergency.
I could feel the isolation creep in, fear began to show. Without communications when will we know when someone is coming? How will we know when we can leave? The radio silence was deafening but communications wouldn’t be the last of our worries.
We had the scrubbing system on and were monitoring our gas levels. With no ability to communicate with the surface we knew we had to save our resources. Luckily for us, there were enough reserves to support a 20-person crew for 36 hours, and with only six us we knew we’d be able to survive longer – not that anyone wanted to be trapped down there for that long.
Minutes dragged into hours.
I began to tell jokes, a simple form of distraction to try and lighten the mood. There were a couple of younger guys in the chamber, so I tried to remain strong, never letting on what was racing through my mind – what is happening on the surface, why have we been here for so long. Honestly, I was afraid; I kept thinking about my family. My wife. And my kids.
Almost eight hours had now ticked by, but it felt longer. There was still no contact.
“Hello. Is everyone ok? Is anyone injured?” Nothing sounded sweeter.
The Emergency Response Team peered through the portal window. Following procedure they assessed the situation before deeming it safe to enter – this felt like forever, but was only a few minutes. Finally, they opened the chamber and pulled the team out. I can still see the wave of relief on everyone’s face.
I high-fived all the ERT’s. We’re going home safe.
It is hard to reflect on what happened, it is not something that is openly discussed but it is a shared experience that from that point on, bonds me and my five mates. This changed me. I value my family far more and value material things far less.
If I could pass on one thing about refuge chambers, it would be to become familiar, don’t take them for granted, because something could happen at any second.
I still work in mining and with the same company. I’m thankful the company values the safety and protection of workers so highly, which is why they had refuge chambers installed and maintained. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
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