When things go wrong in a mine, they tend to go really wrong. And like all confined spaces, the people endangered by a safety incident in a mine are not only the miners but also the people trying to save them. In fact, according to CCOHS, an estimated 60% of the workers killed in confined spaces in Canada were would-be rescuers. And according to the United States Mine Rescue Association, 151 rescuers have died in 39 mine incidents in the US since 1869, with 17 of those fatalities occurring in three accidents since 2000. (Click here for more on confined space emergency plans.)
A mine incident can create a Sophie’s choice—do you endanger rescuers by sending them into a hazardous situation to save injured workers or do you protect the rescuers by calling off their efforts, knowing that it means people trapped in the mine will die. Rescuers at a mine in Nevada were recently faced with this horrible situation.
Man Gets Trapped in Abandoned Mine
According to the AP, Devin Westenskow, a father of five, plunged into an abandoned mine shaft in Nevada. Nearly 200 feet down, video images showed that he was injured but still breathing, trapped by debris.
But the 100-year shaft was extremely unstable with crumbling walls. As one rescuer tried to descend to reach the man, he was hit by a large rock, which split his hardhat. Other efforts yielded more falling rocks.
The decision was ultimately made that rescue efforts were too dangerous. So rescue teams were told to stand down in their bid to reach the 28-year-old—even though he was still alive.
The situation raised this ethical dilemma: How do you balance the desire to save a human being in peril with the equally important priority of keeping emergency workers safe and alive to rescue another day?
“You’re playing God in a sense,” said Rob McGee, secretary-treasurer of the United States Mine Rescue Association. He said he couldn’t recall a mine rescue operation that was halted while someone was still alive. But, he noted, a rescue gone awry compounds such a tragedy, adding another layer of grief. Only officials on the ground can know how best to proceed, he said.
The man’s family members praised rescuers for their efforts and, in a joint statement, said they understood when told of the decision to call off the rescue effort. But such understanding wasn’t unanimous. As news reports of the trapped man gained national attention, newspaper readers and others online reacted with a mix of comment that included strong opinion that no one should be abandoned in such a situation.
Such life or death decisions aren’t confined to mining disasters. For example, firefighters and other first responders on the scene of crises face choices such as whether to rescue people in burning buildings or from structures on the verge of collapse.
So what do you think – should the rescue been called off while the man trapped in the mine was still alive?