Report: Idaho Mine With Trapped Miner Lacks Modern Communications

April 21, 2011

Howard Berkes

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As workers continue to blast through solid rock to try to reach an Idaho silver miner missing in a cave-in, reporter Jessica Robinson of the Northwest News Network has produced a fascinating story about the antiquated communication technology used in the Lucky Friday mine. (We've posted the audio at the top of this post.)

"So you're working more than a mile below the surface of the Earth, and there's a cave in," Robinson begins. "How do you let someone know you're alive?"

The answer, Robinson reports, is "pounding on piping, or even shouting."

That's a quote from Mike Summerkamp, who spent 30 years working as an electrician underground at another Idaho silver mine.

The Lucky Friday mine "is rigged up with regular phones underground - like the land line you grew up with — plus phones that act as pagers," Robinson continues.

But she reports that mine owner Hecla Mining Company says trapped miner Larry Marek wasn't near one of the wired phones when the mine collapsed and did not carry a personal communication device.

Robinson goes on to review the modern communication technology that is available underground, including a wireless system used in similar mines and another mine owned by Hecla.

But she reports that metal mines like Lucky Friday were not included in a 2006 mining law that required two-way wireless communication devices and electronic tracking systems underground.

Mine safety expert Celeste Monforton tells Robinson, "Those regulations and that law only applied to underground coal mines."

Larry Marek has been missing since Friday's cave-in and workers digging a rescue tunnel are about half-way to the area the miner was working in when the rock fall occurred. It's taken them three days to dig that far.

It's not known whether Marek, 53, survived the mine collapse or has injuries. Rescuers have fed a narrowly-focused, high resolution camera through a borehole into a "void" behind the collapsed rock but there's no sign of Marek so far.

That and another borehole have been used to pump fresh air into the cavity. Drilling on a third borehole is underway. Company officials hope the boreholes will help them determine the size of the void.

Temperatures underground are reported to be in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Marek was believed to have some food and water with him at the time of the cave-in.

Hecla is posting updates here on its website.

The company has posted a new set of sketches here showing a rough cross-section of the mine, a top-down view of the caved-in area, bore holes and rescue tunnels, and a depiction of the abandoned attempt to dig through the cave-in debris. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.