Fire broke out in a mine in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, in central Canada Sunday, forcing some 70 miners trapped underground to retreat to emergency refuge rooms stocked with oxygen and supplies, a mine official said.
Late Sunday, a rescue team reached one of the rooms, made sure everyone was safe, then closed them back inside until the air inside the mine could be cleared of toxic gases, said Marshall Hamilton, a spokesman for Mosaic Company, the Minneapolis-based firm that operates the potash mine.
Early Monday, the Canadian Press quoted the mine's owner as saying that 32 of the 70 miners who had been trapped underground for some 24 hours have been brought to the surface.
Gary Phillips of Mosaic Company says the rest of the miners will be brought up once rescuers determine conditions are safe.
The other 40 miners are believed to be in two groups in other safe rooms, where they are reported to have been in phone contact with rescuers.
The drama in Canada unfolded Sunday as yet another miner's funeral was held in West Virginia, this last ceremony for Don I. "Rizzle" Bragg, 33, who was killed with Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47, as a result of a belt line fire in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 coal mine on Jan. 19th.
That tragedy followed on the heels of a coal mine accident in Pikeville, Ky., on Jan. 10th, which killed one man, and the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia on Jan. 2nd, which killed 12 men.
The deaths galvanized state legislators in West Virginia, who passed new mine safety rules signed into law Thursday by Gov. Joe Manchin.
In Saskatchewan Sunday night, mine company spokesman Marshall Hamilton said it was a relief that radio contact was finally made with about 30 miners in a refuge room - after about 18 hours in which there was no communication.
Hamilton says workers extinguished the fire about 20 hours after it started and began clearing the smoke from the mine. Hamilton added: "We'd rather do this safely than quickly."
"They're safe where they are, they're safe in there for many, many hours, potentially even days," he said.
Rayanne Hogshaw, the sister of one of the trapped workers, said it was nerve-wracking waiting for news about her brother.
"It's pretty scary. I know myself, my brother has two little boys at home and a fiancée, and you sit and wait and you wonder. And there's nothing you can do," she said.
Hamilton said the fire broke out around 3 a.m. Sunday nearly a mile underground. Nothing has been said about the cause of the fire.
The miners reported smoke and quickly headed for the safe refuge rooms, which can be as large as 50 feet by 150 feet and have an internal supply of oxygen that lasts up to 36 hours, along with food, water, chairs and beds. Two hours later, teams of six rescue personnel began to be mobilized, going into the mine for a few hours at a time, then coming back out and sending in the next team.
Hamilton said that some of the miners' families have gathered at the mine.
"They're a little bit tired. They're a little bit anxious. They have confidence that we've going to safely bring them up," he said. "Nevertheless, they'd like to see them sooner rather than later."
Potash is a pinkish-grey mineral used in the production of agricultural fertilizer.
The mine, which was Saskatchewan's first potash operation when it opened in 1962, is located about 130 miles northeast of the provincial capital of Regina.
In West Virginia, the safety bill approved last week will provide miners with emergency communicators and tracking devices, extra air supplies underground, and to require mining companies to report accidents within 15 minutes or face heavy fines.
Sunday, the family of Randal McCloy - the sole survivor of the Sago disaster, who is still in the hospital – along with the relatives of the other Sago victims received money from a benefit fund set up by ICG of Ashland, Ky., the owner of the Sago mine.
"We realize that no amount of money can take the place of a loved one, but we understand that you do have financial needs," the company said in a letter that accompanied the money. "We hope that this will help provide assistance as you plan for the future."
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