Old mines a source of rare sights, dan­gers

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Explore - BY LIND­SAY WHITEHURST

Un­der­neath the moun­tains and deserts of the U.S. West lie hun­dreds of thou­sands of aban­doned mines, an un­der­ground world that can hold se­ri­ous dan­ger and un­ex­pected won­der.

They are a legacy of the re­gion’s prospect­ing past, when al­most any­one could dig a mine and then walk away, with lit­tle cleanup re­quired, when it stopped pro­duc­ing.

In Utah alone, the state is try­ing to seal more than 10,000 open mines with cin­derblocks and metal grates af­ter peo­ple have died in rock falls and all­ter­rain-ve­hi­cle crashes and from poi­sonous air over the past three decades. Just this month in Ari­zona, a prospec­tor broke his left leg and an­kle af­ter plung­ing to the bot­tom of an old mine shaft. He spent nearly three days there with no food or water fend­ing off rat­tlesnakes be­fore a friend heard his cries for help.

Still, not ev­ery­one wants to see the mines closed. For years, a ded­i­cated sub­cul­ture of ex­plor­ers has been slip­ping un­der­ground to see tun­nels lined with sparkling quartz, cen­tu­ry­old rail cars and cav­erns that open

in the earth like buried ball­rooms.

“No­body has walked the path you’re walk­ing for 100 years,” said Jeremy MacLee, who uses old min­ing doc­u­ments and high-tech safety equip­ment to find and ex­plore for­got­ten holes, mostly in Utah.

He also lends his ex­per­tise to searches for miss­ing peo­ple. That’s how he got to know Bill Pow­ell, who looked for his 18-year-old son, Ri­ley, for months be­fore the teenager and his girl­friend were found dead in a mine shaft the out­side the small town of Eureka.

The teens’ fam­i­lies formed a close bond with MacLee and other vol­un­teer searchers. De­spite his painful mem­o­ries, Bill Pow­ell de­cided to see what draws his friend to those dark re­cesses deep in the desert.

“It’s a whole dif­fer­ent life. The un­der­ground life,” said Pow­ell, who has a grav­elly voice, close­cropped gray beard and a quick smile.

On a re­cent day, he and MacLee joined a group of friends in front of a moun­tain­side open­ing near Eureka, wear­ing hel­mets, oxy­gen me­ters and strong lights, and a car­ry­ing stash of ex­tra bat­ter­ies. Cool air blasted from the open­ing, cut­ting through the desert heat.

The group walked be­tween metal tracks that once car­ried ore carts, mak­ing their way through a tun­nel shored up in places with squared-off tim­bers. Af­ter nearly a mile, the rail­car tracks sud­denly dropped into an abyss as the tun­nel opened wide into a huge cav­ern. A hun­dred years ago, it would be a bustling scene lit with can­dles and car­bide lights, as min­ers climbed a scaf­fold­ing the size of a seven-story build­ing to drill out lead and sil­ver.

Now, it is silent and pitch-black, il­lu­mi­nated only by the search­ing head­lamp beams.

Bill Pow­ell thought of his son, and the trips they took through the desert when he was a kid. Some­times they’d come across an old mine shaft and toss a rock down, try­ing to imag­ine how far it fell. He doesn’t do that any­more, not since his son’s body was found in one of those pits.

Though the teenager never got to ex­plore a mine like the one his father was in, Bill Pow­ell thought he’d like see­ing it. “He’d prob­a­bly wish he was with me, hang­ing out.”

But the dan­gers of aban­doned mines weigh on Utah of­fi­cials’ minds. There have been 11 deaths since 1982 and more than 40 in­juries, in­clud­ing peo­ple who en­tered mines to ex­plore and oth­ers who fell in by ac­ci­dent, ac­cord­ing to state data. Some aban­doned mines be­come filled with tainted water, as in the toxic 2015 spill from Colorado’s Gold King mine, but most in Utah are dry.

Legally, en­ter­ing a mine can be con­sid­ered tres­pass­ing in Utah if it has been closed or there are signs posted out­side, but prose­cu­tions are rare. Ex­plor­ers ar­gue it’s no more dan­ger­ous than out­door sports rang­ing from hik­ing to ski­ing, which also claim lives in the West.

But there are haz­ards spe­cific to mines that can be espe­cially dan­ger­ous to the un­pre­pared, from aban­doned ex­plo­sives to the po­ten­tially fa­tal lowoxy­gen air known to min­ers as “black damp,” recla­ma­tion spe­cial­ist Chris Rohrer said. And while some ex­plor­ers like MacLee go in pre­pared, many do not.

“It’s just a wide open, Wild­West thing,” he said. “It’s a com­pletely un­con­trolled sit­u­a­tion.”

In Ari­zona, prospec­tor John Wad­dell fell to the rocky bot­tom of a mine shaft af­ter the rig­ging he used to lower him­self broke Oct. 15. He sur­vived by suck­ing mois­ture out of his shirt be­fore a friend who he’d told about his plans came to check on him.

There are also cases like Ri­ley Pow­ell and his girl­friend, Bre­lynne “Breezy” Otte­son. Pros­e­cu­tors say an en­raged man killed the teenage cou­ple af­ter they vis­ited his girl­friend de­spite his warn­ing her not to have male vis­i­tors. He dumped their bod­ies in the mine shaft, where they re­mained for nearly three months be­fore be­ing dis­cov­ered in March.

Sim­i­lar cases have oc­curred in states like Wy­oming, Colorado and Cal­i­for­nia. In­ves­ti­ga­tors also searched old mines in Utah and neigh­bor­ing Ne­vada af­ter the high­pro­file 2009 dis­ap­pear­ance of Su­san Cox Pow­ell, though the 28-year-old Salt Lake City-area woman was never found.

For Utah, the mes­sage is as clear as its skull-and­cross­bones signs: Stay out and stay alive. The pro­gram has been around more than 30 years, and the divi­sion has al­ready sealed about 6,000 aban­doned mines.


Mem­bers of a res­cue team lower them­selves into an old aban­doned mine shaft Oct. 17 to res­cue a man who fell into the shaft Oct. 15, near Aguila, Ariz.

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