US mine rescuers face dark, death with confidence

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SYLVESTER, W. Va., Sep 26 (Reuters) Mike Vaught sounds about as comfortable about coal mining as you'd hope a man tasked to rescue others from deep within the earth would be.

''I feel as confident underground as I do sitting in my living room,'' said Vaught, who, at age 31, already has nine years under his belt as a West Virginia coal miner.

Vaught, part of a 10-member rescue team at Massey Energy's Elk Run coal mine in the US Appalachian Mountains, has also seen the danger of coal mining first hand: he was one of the first rescuers to reach Massey's Aracoma mine in 2006 after a fire broke out underground, trapping two miners.

Two days into the rescue, the men were found dead, having gotten lost trying to escape the fire and run out of oxygen.

''That was heartbreaking. You always have hope until the moment you find them,'' said Vaught.

The death in August of six Utah coal miners and three rescuers has once again brought the issue of mine rescue front and center in the United States, with regulators proposing new rules for rescue teams like the one Vaught volunteers for.

In September, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration unveiled proposals it said will improve rescue operations at America's 653 underground coal mines by requiring mines to have more rescue teams with better training, quicker responses and better equipment.

At Elk Run, rescue captain Rob Asbury, 37, is wary of knee-jerk reactions to mine tragedies. Under the new rules, his team will be deemed too distant to cover some of the 31 mines it currently helps with because they have to be within one hour from the mine rather than two.

Instead, each mine, however new or tiny, will be required to have its own rescue teams, a move veterans believe will result in less-experienced teams with more turnover.

HANDS-ON TRAINING Asbury said he couldn't bear to watch much of the round-the-clock television coverage of the Utah rescue effort -- but not because it hit too close to home.

''It kind of gets aggravating because you hear people giving opinions that they really don't know what they're talking about. I don't watch a lot of it,'' said Asbury, whose brother, father and both grandfathers have also been coal miners.

The new rules will increase training to 64 hours a year from 40 and require teams to participate in two local mine rescue contests each year.

The volunteers on Asbury's team are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When their pagers go off, they've left the dinner table, the shower, the movie -- and even the dentist's chair -- to get to the rescue center and gear up for action.

Team members are also all certified emergency medical technicians and each has a separate set of skills, whether monitoring gas levels, communicating with the surface, maintaining equipment or navigating. Their equipment ranges from 10,000 dollars thermal imaging cameras to massive spindles of communication cable, backpack-style breathing apparatuses and medical kits complete with stretchers and respirators.

Asbury said he's never seen a shortage of rescue teams when miners are hurt or lost, with teams racing in from all over the state when a call goes out.

Charles Conn, 52, captain of another Massey rescue team, this one based in Kentucky, said teams usually only see each other at competitions, where it's every team for itself.

''But when it came time for the actual event (at Aracoma), it wasn't a competition, everyone was in for the same common goal, we were all in it together,'' said Conn, who joined a rescue team four years ago, after 32 years underground.

''That's where we bonded. That's where we became a team,'' said Jeremy McClung, 28, who joined the team just one year before the fire.

''We went in as a team and came out brothers,'' said Vaught.

Aside from tragedies like Aracoma, mine rescue teams have recently been gaining experience through a more annoying task -- rescuing thieves who venture into abandoned mine shafts in search of copper wire they can sell as scrap.

Asbury's team has done two such rescues so far this year.

Each time, they found two thieves who had been lost for days but were rescued alive after families reported them missing.

The events, while valuable training exercises, anger the rescue team members.

''We are risking our lives to rescue unwise people. It upsets our families when we have to go away on those calls,'' said Vaught.

Still, McClung said there was no doubt the copper thieves appreciated their rescuers.

''They'd given up. When they saw us they said: 'We know we're going to jail but can you please get us out,''' McClung recalled. ''They were pretty grateful.'' REUTERS SG RK0900

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