Toronto Star

Ladder a lifeline for 39 miners trapped near Sudbury, but it’s a long way out

Workers stranded since Sunday, more than 900 metres deep


It was an ascent to safety that forced 39 trapped miners to climb a ladder system twice the height of the CN Tower.

The elevator that normally brings employees working in Totten Mine near Sudbury, Ont., to the surface became blocked Sunday morning when a large “scoop bucket” fell and lodged itself in the shaft, said Jeff Lewis, a spokespers­on for Vale, the Brazilian company that owns the mine.

Cut off, the miners sought refuge in a rest area in the mine where they had access to food, water and medicine delivered by rescue teams.

None were injured. And they were able to speak with family from their undergroun­d hold through a communicat­ions system at the facility, said Lewis.

Thankfully, there is another way out: a series of vertical ladders the miners began scaling Monday from depths of between 900 and 1,200 metres. The CN Tower climb pales by comparison at 553 metres spread out over 1,776 steps.

“The ascent has begun,” Lewis said around 6 p.m. Monday. “We expect all 39 to be on the surface tonight.”

The ladder system was put in place as a backup system for the workers to escape. The problem was that workers had been stuck in the mine shaft for more than 35 hours when their ascent began.

With a lack of sleep and food, extra help was needed for workers to ascend safely.

“We have harnesses for the guys to wear and what we’re doing is using that to assist them in their evacuation so that they don’t fall off a ladder,” said Shawn Rideout, chief mine rescue officer from Ontario Mine Rescue.

Rideout said his organizati­on began setting up the extra rescue equipment around 7 a.m. on Monday.

“Everybody is safe, they’re all in good spirits, we have no reported injuries. Our plan is to get them to the surface in that same form.”

The miners had climbed about 960 metres as of 9 p.m. Monday. Rideout said that the ascent time could take from six to 10 hours for workers to complete, depending on their fitness and level of fatigue. There are rest stops every 100 metres for workers to take a break if needed.

“We’re anticipati­ng we’re going to have our first four out of the mine, probably before midnight,” he said. “We’re taking it one step at a time to make sure everybody comes out safely.”

Nick Larochelle, president of United Steelworke­rs (USW) Local 6500, which represents most of the mine’s employees including 30 of the 39 trapped workers, called it a “very stressful and anxious time for the workers and their loved ones. Every effort is being made to ensure everyone is brought back to surface safely and as quickly as possible.”

The Totten Mine, located 35 km west of Sudbury, began operations in 2014. It has about 200 employees.

“Rescuing our employees safely and in a timely manner is our number one priority,” reads a statement published by Vale early Monday evening. “Production at the site is temporaril­y suspended and we are currently assessing the necessary measures to resume production.”

In the first six months of 2021, Totten mine produced 3,600 tons of finished nickel, the company statement reads. Vale ranks as one of the world’s largest nickel producers. In Canada, it is one of the country’s leading producers of nickel and copper with facilities in Sudbury, Newfoundla­nd and Labrador and Manitoba.

In Sudbury, Vale operates five mines, a mill, a smelter and refinery with nearly 4,000 employees — one of the largest mining operations in the world, according to the company.

This isn’t the first incident at a Vale facility in Sudbury.

In June 2011, two workers died after being crushed at a different Vale mine in the city. USW Local 6500 called for a public inquiry into the deaths alleging widespread safety issues.

In 2013, Toronto-based Vale was fined more than $1 million for mine safety breaches — the highest ever fine by an Ontario court at the time for breaches of the Occupation­al Health and Safety Act.

After another miner died in 2012 at the city’s Coleman mine, Vale temporaril­y suspended operations at its five mines to review safety, according to media reports at the time.

Further afield, the internatio­nal resource powerhouse has suffered other tragedies including the collapse of a company-owned dam in Brazil that killed more than 270 people and resulted in a $7 billion settlement deal with the state.

This past June, Vale employees in Sudbury walked off the job after talks broke down with the company. In August, the two sides struck a new five-year collective bargaining agreement that included improved pension and health-care benefits for workers.

 ?? GINO DONATO THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? The 39 workers trapped undergroun­d at the Totten mine near Sudbury were slowly on their way out, the company said.
GINO DONATO THE CANADIAN PRESS The 39 workers trapped undergroun­d at the Totten mine near Sudbury were slowly on their way out, the company said.

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