OURAY – Miners at the Revenue-Virginius Mine risked their own lives in a desperate and futile effort to save their shift boss and a fellow miner from carbon monoxide poisoning on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 17.
“Their story has not been told,” said Eric Keep, the brother of deceased miner Nicholas Cappanno. “They saw my brother go down. Those guys all had the ability to get out of there, but they sacrificed their health to try to get him out.”
Many of the miners involved in the aborted rescue mission have reached out to Keep and his family in the days following the accident that killed both Cappanno and his supervisor, Rick Williams, a mile and a half inside the historic mine, which dates to the 1870s and was taken over by its current owner/operator, Denver-based Star Mine Operations, in 2011.
Cappanno, 33, had taken the job there a few weeks before his death, so he could be closer to his Montrose-based family than his previous job in the oil industry allowed. He had no prior mining experience.
Williams, 59, lived in Silverton for much of his life, and was a seasoned, well-trained professional miner. He began working at the Revenue-Virginius about a year-and-a-half ago, according to his wife Judy, and was recently promoted to shift boss.
The details that surviving miners have recently shared with Keep confirm a statement issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration on Monday, that Williams was attempting to revive Cappanno, even as his own life slipped away.
“He died trying to save my brother,” Keep said. Bruise marks on Cappanno’s chest indicate that Williams attempted CPR. Williams also gave Cappanno his own supplemental oxygen, Keep said. “He thought he had enough to get out.”
When two other miners working in the area realized what was happening, they “grabbed my brother and drug him,” Keep said. “Rick was still alive at the time.”
Cappanno, it turns out, was not. “They drug my brother out a ways, until they knew he was dead. Then they went back for Mr. Williams.”
But by then it was too late for Williams, as well. Realizing this, Keep said, the miners aborted their rescue attempt and evacuated the mine.
“From what I understand, my brother was dead within seconds,” Keep said. “The tragedy of it was, they didn’t use their self-rescuers. Self-rescuers would have saved them. But they had been trained to use their self rescuers when they see smoke, and they didn’t see smoke. And somehow, that drift wasn’t ventilated.”
Carbon monoxide, known as the “silent killer” because it is colorless, odorless and tasteless, is a byproduct of explosives used in mining. When inhaled, CO enters the bloodstream through the lungs and binds with hemoglobin, interfering with the blood's ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Initial symptoms include mild headache, fatigue, nausea and dizziness. Exposed to the gas in lethal quantities, the victim suffocates as the result of chemical asphyxiation.
All miners are required by MSHA to carry an approved one-hour self-rescue device in case they encounter CO within a mine; the device converts the deadly CO into harmless CO2. One of the mysteries that will surely be investigated by MSHA authorities in the following weeks and months is why the miners involved in Sunday’s Revenue-Virginius tragedy failed to use their self-rescue devices.
Another unknown at this point is the source of the deadly CO gas that killed Williams and Cappanno. Keep offered a potential clue. “They were burning old powder back in there; it’s a practice they have used forever – it’s a safe way of dealing with it, if you get the ventilation,” he said. This report calls into question the adequacy of the mine’s ventilation system, which appears to have failed in Sunday’s tragic chain of events.
Keep said he hopes that MSHA authorities can unravel these and other troubling questions in their upcoming investigation.
“That mine almost 140 years old,” he said. “Why, this one time, did all the pieces fit in all the wrong ways?”
Keep is optimistic that the answers will come with time. “People reassure me MSHA is really good at what they do,” he said. “If there is a problem, they will find it. I am not angry with anybody, other than the way the rules are taught; why were they trained to use a self-rescuer only when they see smoke?”
Keep emphasized that in spite of what happened to his brother, he is not on a personal vendetta against Star Mine or the mining industry in general. “But I don’t want anything to happen to any other boys going underground. I want something good to come from this, nothing bad. The tragedy has happened. Let’s try to find the good, and save the work environment for our miners.”
Such consequences may take years to unfold.
In the meantime, with Cappanno and Williams both dead, Keep said, the most pressing concern at the moment is the condition of the 20 miners who attempted to save their lives. The evacuated miners were taken to regional hospitals after their evacuation, where they were treated for varying levels of carbon monoxide exposure. According to mine operator Star Mine, all 20 have since been released.
“The miners are number one. You can only imagine what those guys took into their bodies,” he said. “It’s so unfortunate. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those men.”
A TROUBLING SAFETY RECORD
The historic Revenue-Virginius mine is located near Yankee Boy Basin, 6.9 miles southwest of Ouray, above the Camp Bird Mine, and below the Ruby Trust. The mine shut down in the 1940s, but record-high silver prices in 2011 fanned new interest among investors. It was being readied for reopening by Star Mine Operations LLC, a subsidiary of the Denver-based private mining company Silver Star Resources, which obtained a mining permit for the Revenue-Virginius in February 2013 to mine silver, gold and sulfide minerals from vein deposits on patented mining claims purchased under a lease agreement by the company in 2011.
Star Mining’s work force had swollen to close to 100 in recent months. Work was proceeding feverishly, with three shifts of miners working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and surface workers putting in 10-hour days, five days a week.
Mining crews were focused on rehabilitating the historic underground workings that probe some two miles into the mountainside, and laying rail into the very back of the mine. Recently, they were poised to put in some raises to access ore veins in previously untapped regions of the mine, as work also progressed toward installing an underground mill capable of processing up to 300 tons of ore per day.
With Sunday’s tragedy, all of this came to a screeching halt, with all work at the mine suspended pending the outcome of the MSHA investigation.
Not surprisingly, Revenue-Virginius’ safety record has come under scrutiny since the deaths of the two miners.
At a press conference on Sunday night, Star Mine Operations Manager Rory Williams defended Star Mine’s safety record. “We always keep safety as our number one priority,” he said. “We never want an injury, a death, or anything of any nature which harms a person, an individual or an employee to occur on our mine site. I believe our safety record has been strong. We have not had any incident of this nature ever, and I never intend to have another one.”
Williams also told The Watch that Star Mine has strict training requirements for all of its workers, from long-term employees to new hires. Cappanno had recently completed a 40-hour MSHA training as well as an eight-hour refresher course (Rick Williams had also completed a very recent eight-hour refresher course).
Even so, MSHA records reveal that Star Mine has a troubling safety record. “There are a lot of problems we see with this very new mine,” said Ellen Smith, publisher of the online publication Mine Safety and Health News, in an interview on Colorado Public Radio’s show Colorado Matters earlier this week. “They did not have a proper mine plan when they opened; and their miners had not been properly trained.”
According to MSHA records, prior to Sunday’s accident, the mine had previously reported five accidents in 2013, and four in 2012 – giving the mine an accident rate that is 115 percent above the national average. Most of these accidents were not of a serious nature.
“Guys are getting stuff in their eyes, smashing fingers,” Smith said. “It might show that they need to slow down, but it’s nothing serious.”
MSHA also pronounced the mine’s “violations-per-inspection-day” rate unusually high – 1.47, compared to the national average of .47 for underground metal/nonmetal mines, as the result of 25 violations since August of 2012.
Retired MSHA inspector and supervisor Ron Renowden, who now runs a small safety and health consulting business in Silverton, did some safety consulting for Star Mine shortly after the company acquired the Revenue-Virginius property in 2011.
“I am surprised they are above the national levels on their injury rate,” he said, although he has heard some “scuttlebutt kind of stuff going on,” among the Silverton miners who are employed at the mine.
“The company has received a lot of negative feedback from miners off and on since they started operating,” he said. “I helped [Star Mine] get started in the very beginning and cautioned them they need to stay on top of all these things, and reminded them of their responsibilities. Mining is inherently dangerous; you have to use extra-special precautions when operating in a mine or working in a mine; everyone has to stay on board and have a commitment to safety.
A DANGEROUS BUSINESS IN A DANGEROUS ENVIRONMENT
The tragedy at the Revenue-Virginius Mine has been a poignant reminder for many in Ouray and the surrounding communities that mining is indeed a dangerous occupation.
The Miner’s Heritage statue near the Ouray Hot Springs Pool has become a gathering place for the bereaved, and a place of quiet contemplation over the past several days, with flowers, notes and small commemorative objects piling up at its base.
Ouray resident Dee Williams, who visited the statue Tuesday afternoon, summed up the feelings expressed by many here in Ouray.
“I was reminded of Ouray's history. How in the past 140 years lives have been lost in mining accidents, or in avalanches on the way to and from the mines. It's a dangerous business in a dangerous environment,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Thankfully there are people who are willing to take the risk mining involves. Ouray wouldn't be here without them, and a good portion of Colorado wouldn't be here if it weren't for the industry and prosperity mining brought to our state.”
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