Mine rescue volunteers train at WVU's Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies
Mention Sago, Aracoma and Upper Big Branch to a miner, and memories of lives lost quickly cloud their faces. That is especially true for Eugene White, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, who participated in rescue operations at each of those mining disasters.
"Sago changed me. UBB changed me," said White, who has spent more than 42 years in the industry. "But those events, along with Aracoma, also changed the industry and the role of mine rescue teams."
It also changed how those teams are trained. And for many, that training happens at the West Virginia University's Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies, which opened its simulated underground coal mine in 2009.
Recently White and his team of mine rescue volunteers - totaling about 25 - were at the WVU facility outside of Morgantown for training. The WVU facility is one of only two in the state that offers live fire training in an underground atmosphere.
"The heat inside the facility is something you will experience at a real event and here, at the WVU facility, you get heat," said White. "Our state guys probably practice together in smoke more than any other team in the state. They actually feel the heat and that is something that is real life."
White should know. According to Jim Dean, director of mining and industrial extension in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, White's experience at the Aracoma Alma mine in 2006 taught him how valuable this type of training can be to a rescue team.
Eugene was actually with the state mine rescue team at Aracoma, which was a fire incident," said Dean. "He can tell you that the heat at Aracoma was extremely intense. The rescuers had never trained in that type of condition. At that time, there wasn't a facility that provided this type of training and exposure."
"If you have a fire underground and you don't have it under control in about an hour, you're in trouble," said White, who noted that in the past, rescue teams learned how to respond to fires through on-the-job training. "The heat is a good thing," White added. "You look at the guys training today and when they come out of the mine they're tired; they're worn out. Many of our inspectors are older guys, so we always have that concern whether they're physically going to be able to do it and how long they can do it. The physical conditions and the realism this facility provides are really significant."
After Sago, the state created four mine rescue teams that are located strategically across the state. While this situation is unique, White feels that it gives the rescue teams an advantage compared to their counterparts in other states, where teams are made up of coal mining employees from different companies.
"These guys all work together, they know each other, they're around each other every day," said White. "They're friends and they know how to work together. Training is critical to what we do and I'm proud of where we are with our equipment and our training."
For more information on news and events in the West Virginia University Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources:
College Relations office: 304-293-4086
Office of the Dean: 304-293-4157
Other College administrative and department offices: Administration