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“To Succor Their Fellow Men” (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 09, 2008

Last summer’s Crandall Canyon mine disaster cost the lives of nine men — six entombed in the initial cave-in, and three more who died in a rescue attempt. Now the U.S. Attorney for Utah is considering a congressional request to pursue a criminal investigation of the mine’s operators.

The following tribute to the heroism of Utah’s miners was written last August while we waited day after day for news from Crandall Canyon:

A century ago, Utah newspaperman Josiah Gibbs, who was a miner as well as an editor, wrote of “the perils of mining, and the men who mine.” He told of recent incidents where men had hurried to the aid of their fellow miners: “Not once in a thousand times will a miner desert his post of duty or fail to risk his life to save the lives of others, and often rushes into the very jaws of death to succor his fellow men.”

In Gibbs’s day, mine rescues were haphazard affairs. Men who may have been experienced miners but who had no training in first aid, and no special rescue equipment, ran headlong into fires, or mines filled with gas, or collapsed tunnels, to drag or dig or pull their brethren to safety.

By 1910, the mining fraternity demanded a more systematic way to conduct mine rescues.

That year, Congress funded the outfitting of specially constructed railroad cars, stocked with first aid supplies, oxygen tanks, field telephones, resuscitation gear, and safety lamps. Onboard sleeping quarters allowed the cars to be staffed day and night. These cars were stationed throughout the country, and could be hitched to a train at a moment’s notice and rushed to the site of a disaster. Utah’s coal fields were covered by a car assigned to western Colorado.

In reality, Utah’s rescue car was seldom sidetracked at its assigned station. Instead, it traveled almost constantly, its staff visiting mining camps for a week at a time, demonstrating equipment, giving first aid lessons and teaching disaster prevention. This training was freely offered and eagerly accepted by thousands of Utah miners. Within a few years, the first aid training was extended to women and Boy Scouts. Mine owners began buying rescue equipment for their own mines and requiring their employees to undergo training.

The rescue car made frequent trips to Utah’s larger cities, where the traveling experts lectured at YMCA meetings and performed with their equipment for interested visitors to the state fair. Demonstrations of the oxygen helmet were especially popular: this gear, resembling a diver’s helmet with a pneumatic cushion fitting it snugly to the face, was hooked to an oxygen tank on the chest and a potash filtering system on the back, and weighed nearly 40 pounds.

Lifesaving training proved so popular among Utah’s miners that annual rescue competitions were held beginning in 1911. Utah competed that year against teams from Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico. Within a few years, competitions had grown to embrace teams from the eastern states, Canada, and Mexico.

Typical of these contests was the competition held in 1915. Teams from throughout the Utah coal fields gathered at Castle Gate on Aug. 21. Following strict rules, men demonstrated carrying a victim in a crouched position as if caught in a low tunnel. They performed the safe removal of a victim found lying on a live electrical wire. They competed in fire fighting, the swift donning of the oxygen equipment, and splinting and bandaging. The team from Sunnyside – who had vividly proven the value of their training only a week earlier when they had saved the life of an electrocution victim by performing artificial respiration for 20 minutes – narrowly edged a Castle Gate team for top honors.

Besides winning Red Cross medals for their achievement, the Sunnyside team won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sep. 23-24 national meet at San Francisco, competing with the winners of state contests throughout the U.S. The Tribune trumpeted the news on Sep. 25: “Utah has the champion mine rescue team of the United States! The Sunnyside team … finished first today … with a score of 96 out of a possible 100 points.”

As we wait and watch and pray and grieve with the families of the Crandall Canyon miners, we honor the selfless tradition of Utah miners “rushing into the very jaws of death to succor their fellow men.”



6 Comments »

  1. Thanks; this is pretty interesting. (And it brings back memories of competitive first aid meets from Boy Scout days.)

    Comment by Edje — May 9, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  2. It’s amazing that safety measures like this took so long to come about! Reading this post reminded me of the Scofield mine disaster in 1900. It was the worst to date in U.S. history in terms of deaths — around 250, including my great grandma’s husband. Considering the fact that many of those men died from the afterdamp, I wonder how many would have been saved if they could have swiftly donned oxygen equipment. On the other hand, I wonder how many deaths were averted in future disasters once safety training really took off.

    Comment by Jacob F — May 9, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  3. I’m not quite claustrophobic, but I don’t enjoy being underground. Hard as it would be to be a miner in the first place, I can’t imagine where I’d find the courage to go back in as a rescuer after something had already gone wrong.

    Thank you, Edje and Jacob F, for reading and commenting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 9, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  4. That is very interesting, thanks.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — May 9, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  5. I can’t imagine where I’d find the courage to go back in as a rescuer after something had already gone wrong.

    I pondered that as well during the aftermath of this disaster, particularly after seeing the cramped quarters and dismal conditions of those rescue workers as profiled on CNN. Gives new meaning to the Scripture, Greater love hath no man . . .

    Comment by Guy Murray — May 10, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  6. I absolutely love Alan Jackson’s song, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” – because of the incredible imagery it contains. One of the lines about the firefighters and police officers on 9/11 that applies so well to these rescue workers is:

    “Did you stand up with pride for the red, white and blue – and the heroes who died just doin’ what they do?”

    Comment by Ray — May 10, 2008 @ 9:14 pm

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