The year began full of promise for mining in the Western San Juans with Ouray’s historic Revenue-Virginius silver mine poised to begin production in the fall. But tragedy struck in the early morning hours of Sunday, Nov. 17, leaving two miners dead from carbon monoxide poisoning and 20 others rushed to area hospitals.
The two deaths – of 33-year-old powderman trainee Nicholas Cappanno, just a few weeks on the job, and his shift supervisor, 59-year-old mining veteran Rick Williams – and subsequent evacuation of the 20 surviving miners, the grieving community and Mine Safety and Health Administration investigation was, sadly, our biggest story of 2013.
Supervisor Williams died trying to rescue Cappanno, fatally struck within seconds of encountering the lethal levels of carbon monoxide, to which Williams soon succumbed, as well.
The 20 surviving miners tried to save the pair. “They sacrificed their health” in efforts to save the victims, said Cappanno’s brother, Eric Keep, of efforts to revive the two, risking their own exposure to the lethally toxic gas that can be neither seen nor smelled.
Survivors’ reports indicate Williams attempted to revive Cappanno, administering CPR and using his own supplemental oxygen for Cappanno, as his own life slipped away from the fast-acting poisoning. The 20 surviving miners were transported to area hospitals via helicopter and ambulance as fully equipped mine-rescue teams entered the mine, returning to the surface with the bodies of the two victims by 2 p.m.
According to multiple MSHA reports, Cappanno and Williams were stricken while working in a part of the mine where explosives were detonated by the previous shift.
A VOLATILE MARKET
In February 2013, The Watch reported that the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety approved with conditions a mine-permit application for Star Mine Operations, effectively green-lighting a shift from exploration to production phase at the Revenue-Virginius Mine once stabilization work was completed and an underground mill constructed.
SMO had been working to stabilize the mine since acquiring it through a lease-purchase agreement in 2011. When the accident occurred, SMO had a total of 103 employees, including 64 underground workers, 36 mill and prep workers and three others, at the mine.
Despite a volatile gold and silver market, SMO stuck to its goal of mining and milling ore by the fall of 2013. Prior to the firm’s 2011 acquisition of the Revenue-Virginius, silver had hit a record high of over $43.49/ounce that July, with gold peaking at $1,896 that September, sparking a flurry of efforts to reopen historic regional mines, including the nearby Camp Bird Mine.
But by late June 2013, the price of silver plunged by well over 50 percent, to $18.61, with gold on a similar trajectory, plunging to below $1,200.
“It hasn’t affected our plans,” Project Manager Rory Williams, a recent graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, said of the price drop. “We haven’t reduced any staff, and don’t have any plans to. We are definitely watching it closely, but at these levels, we are still economic and can keep rolling ahead.”
An MSHA “fatalgram” report issued on Dec. 3 outlined inadequate “best practices” as possible contributing factors to the accident, raising concerns about effective workplace safety examinations, ventilation, gas-detection instruments, evacuation procedures and proper disposal of “damaged or deteriorated explosive material” at the Revenue-Virginius.
Over the next week, MSHA issued almost 100 citations to SMO, stemming from spot checks at the mine, concerning everything from housekeeping and maintenance infractions to inadequate air quality monitoring, failure to post or barricade unventilated areas and maintain safe travelways, improper disposal of deteriorated explosive materials and inadequate escapeways and refuge chambers. One of the many unanswered questions about the accident is the nature and purpose of the “detonation,” the day before, in the depths of the mine where Cappanno and Williams would encounter the deadly carbon monoxide gas that killed them on Nov. 17.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Cappanno, who grew up in Olathe, with deep, multi-generational roots the Montrose area, is survived by his wife, Martha, and their sons Brayden, 5, and Barrett, 2; by his parents, Audrey and Dan Keep, and siblings Robin Johnson and Eric Keep.
Williams, who was married to Judy Williams, with whom he had two sons, Nathan, 25, and Aaron, 23, and one grandchild, Marley, 4, was born in Moab, Utah, and grew up in and around Silverton. In 1993, the family moved 50 miles south, to Durango. Working at the Revenue-Virginius was a homecoming of sorts for Williams (and for many other former Sunnyside miners who went to work there after a two-decade hiatus from mining). “They all knew each other up there,” Judy Williams said, after her husband’s death. “In Silverton, everyone knew each other. There is a camaraderie around mining in Silverton. In the mining industry, it’s a family.
“It’s a death for everyone,” Williams’ widow said. “They are all grieving, and I feel heartbroken for everyone.”