Danny Taillefer and Jason Leger were doing a refresher first aid course when the phone rang.
Shawn Rideout, Ontario Mine Rescue’s chief rescue officer, was on the other end. At the Totten Mine near Sudbury, Ontario, 39 miners were stuck underground after the mine shaft was compromised, he said.
There was another way out: at the Vale mine, about a kilometer underground, climbing a complex tangle of ladders.
Taillefer and Leger – mine rescue officers from the nonprofit organization based in Timmins, Ontario – were required on a complicated mission and instructed to bring hundreds of pounds of rope and other equipment. Not long after the call last Monday week, they got into a truck and drove to the mine in Worthington, Ontario.
The surgery that followed became what Taillefer and Leger called the most stressful event of their lives.
“They just couldn’t control the tears,” Taillefer told the Canadian Press as he recalled some of the mission’s most intense moments. “You just walk away, wipe your eyes, put it together, and then go back to it.”
Ontario Mine Rescue has been in contact with Vale’s emergency team since Sunday, September 26, when workers were trapped underground.
A shovel bucket had come loose and fell down part of the mine shaft, causing great damage, Vale said. The repairs could take weeks, said Ted Hanley, vice president of Ontario Mine Rescue.
A second escape route, which is required by law in Ontario, would be the way out for the miners.
Taillefer and Leger arrived at the mine around 4:30 p.m. on Monday. At that time, part of the 60-person rescue team was already about 564 meters underground, where four miners were in a shelter.
The team set up a series of ropes to go deeper – 960 meters – where 35 other miners waited and passed the time watching videos on their phones over the mine’s Wi-Fi system.
The rescuers believed that capable miners could get out without much difficulty, strapped to ropes like mountaineers. It was clear, however, that four miners in the group furthest below the surface would need significant help, Hanley said.
It took about a day to set up the ropes that would help the miners disembark, the rescuers said. On Tuesday, just after midnight, the workers gradually set out.
“We just gave it,” said Taillefer, 39.
The miners closest to the surface got off first in about three hours. Groups of three miners rose below them, with one rescuer above and one below.
Taillefer and other rescuers, meanwhile, made a plan for the last four.
“At this point they had been down there for well over 40 hours, they were all exhausted and some of these guys just couldn’t climb a ladder because of old injuries or complaints,” said Taillefer.
Without electricity and only with headlights, the rescuers used the rope system – and a lot of muscle power – to pull three of the last four up around 61 meters.
It became clear they needed a better way, Taillefer said.
The crew then deployed an AZTEK pulley system that helped balance the miners’ weight, he said. A single system wasn’t long enough, so the rescuers used two, which gave them a mechanical advantage that made 10 pounds feel like one, explained Taillefer.
“It was slow, but it worked very well,” he said.
Leger said the double pulley system made a significant difference. “That was a big change and made things go a lot faster,” said the 49-year-old.
The operation was still exhausting. It would take a miner three minutes to lift a six-foot ladder, Taillefer said.
“Then we rest 15 minutes,” he said, adding that he would lie down and try to sleep.
The rescue team would then reset the pulley system and start over with the next ladder.
“It took our very last man about eight or nine hours to get them to 30 of the 67 landings,” he said.
The miners were not injured when the mine shaft was compromised, and it was up to the rescue team to make sure they were unharmed – that responsibility eventually took its toll, rescuers said.
“There were times when the stress just boiled over and you started crying for no real good reason,” said Taillefer.
For Leger it was the first time that he “turned physical stress into psychological stress”.
But both said they took inspiration from the miners.
“A lot of these people had children the same age as us and it was very important for us to bring them home,” said Taillefer.
The final phase of the operation turned out to be the most daunting.
At about 564 meters, the last four miners and the rescuers faced a 122-meter ladder at a 78-degree angle, with “little landings that you could just slide over to rest your bum,” Taillefer said.
The crew set up a two-rope system that three miners snapped into and climbed up, but the last miner was unable to climb that route.
The rescuers then set up a winch, put the last miner in a basket, and pulled him up while Taillefer climbed the ladder next to him.
Two hours later, cold groundwater flowing through crevices in the rock hit the group at the top of this section.
“It was like someone had opened a fire hose wide,” said Taillefer.
Wet, cold and exhausted, the group returned to the AZTEK pulley system for the final 61 meters to get to an elevator that took them to the surface, Taillefer said.
It was just after 4 a.m. on Wednesday when the last miner and seven rescuers arrived at that point.
“You would have thought that 100 people were screaming, laughing and crying down there,” said Taillefer of the celebration that had broken out.
“And there wasn’t even a plaster with it,” said Leger.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 5, 2021.
Liam Casey, the Canadian press