You’re deep underground when you hear an explosion. Fire and debris rain down on you. You’re alive but trapped, hundreds of meters below the surface of the Earth with no way out. You’re low on food, water, light and air. And the roof may collapse any minute.
Underground mines are deep. Very deep. While the average mine descends about 300 m (1,000 ft), there are some, like uranium mines, that can go 2 km (6,500 ft) into the earth. Now that’s deep. Modern mines are more than just a big hole in the ground. They are also made with ventilation shafts to circulate oxygen and clear out toxic fumes, and water draining systems to keep them dry.
Additional shafts are built in to accomodate the transportation of equipment or for escape. But when the unthinkable happens, you could be trapped without access to any of these. Mines can collapse due to explosions of methane gas or coal dust, or from landlsides caused by surface flooding. And you do not want to be at the bottom of one when a cave-in occurs.
But how deadly is an actual collapse? If you survive the initial event, how would you stay alive for days or even weeks? And what are the chances of actually being rescued?
Step 1. Breathe
In the event of a mine collapse, immediately reach for your breathing apparatus. Miners use a device called an SCSR, or self-contained self-rescuer. SCSRs can provide oxygen and air filtration for at least an hour, which could allow you precious time to hang a gas curtain to keep out dangerous chemicals and smoke. SCSRs weigh about 7 pounds, so not every miner carries one on their person. Keep this device close by. It could safe your life.
Step 2. Find Shelter
If you survive the collapse and aren’t crushed or burned alive, you’ll need somewhere safe to wait until you can be rescued.
This may require you to delve further into the mine. Do not fear moving further into the darkness. While it may seem dangerous, it will be safer and more stable. In August 2010, 33 Chilean miners became trapped in the San Jose mine after it collapsed. They set up a small shelter near a tunnel.
They had meager supplies, but through rationing survived the first 17 days before being contacted by rescuers. They were lucky to have a chemical toilet, tuna, cookies and milk, which they rationed carefully for weeks. No between-meal snacks.
Coal miners of the Sago mine in West Virginia were not so lucky. When 13 miners we trapped underground by an explosion, they managed to hang a barrier to keep out carbon monoxide. Unfortunately, smoke obstructed the flow of air, and 12 of the miners suffocated. Only one survived.
Step 3. Make Contact
In order to escape, you will need to be rescued. Most modern mines are fitted with communication networks, but these may be damaged or inaccessible due to the collapse. The Chilean miners were able to communicate with rescuers by sticking a note to the head of an exploratory drill, which rescuers then found when they retracted it. Rescuers were then able to locate the miners, and provide them with food and medical supplies, as well as fibreoptic cables to call their loved ones.
In the case of the lone survivor of the Sago mine disater, rescuers found him by the sound of his moans. However you make contact, telling rescuers where you are and that you’re alive are essential to making it out of the mine.
Step 4. Practice Discipline
Once rescuers find you, you may end up waiting days or even weeks to be released. Carefully ration your food, and find ways to stave off boredom like simple games and cleaning the shelter area. You may experience intense heat deeper in the mine, so staying hydrated is vital. Regular excercise can also help save your life in unexpected ways. When rescuing the Chilean miners, rescuers issues them a rigid diet to help them lose weight, which made them smaller and easier to extract through a narrow shaft.
Step 5. Ascend
Getting out of the mine will not be easy. When the Chilean miners were extracted, they were loaded into a capsule which was pulled up through a bored shaft. The capsule protected the miners in case of the shaft collapsing. Miners trapped in the Totten mine in Sudbury, Ontario were stuck 1.2km (4,000 ft) underground when an accident crashed and broke the elevator shaft.
The miners had to climb out using a series of ladders placed by rescuers. It took hours and required frequent rest. Climb carefully. The last thing you want is to fall deeper into the mine.
Being trapped underground is many people’s worst nightmare. But if you’re careful and prepared, you just might make it out alive.Being trapped in a mine would be bad enough, but what about being buried alive?
- “What Do You Do If You’re Trapped In A Mine?“. Slate Magazine.
- “Six Steps To Survival For Chile Miners“. 2022. BBC News.
- “All 39 Trapped Canadian Miners Rescued After Three Days“. 2022. BBC News.
- “US Miners Hung A Gas Curtain And Waited To Be Rescued“. 2006. Irish Examiner.
- “How Underground Mining Works“. Howstuffworks.