The World’s Longest Fire Run
Government Sends Mine-Rescue Car on 1,666-Mile Journey to Canada Mine—First International Expedition of Kind
UNIQUE in the annals of international humanitarian activities was the recent dispatch of a United States Bureau of Mines rescue car and crew for the purpose of giving aid in controlling the disastrous fire in the great Hollinger gold mine, at Timmins, Ontario, hundreds of miles to the north of the Canadian border line. Responding to telegraphic messages received late in the afternoon of February 10, a Bureau of Mines rescue car, stationed in a remote Pennsylvania coal-mining town, where the lack of adequate communication facilities consumed hours of precious time, was started on its long journey from Pittsburgh at 9.14 on the morning of February 11, arriving at the Hollinger mine at 6.20 on the morning of February 12. Running with special locomotives provided for every mile of the long trip, the rescue car was hurtled through in a period of time eleven hours less than is required for the fastest express trains.
At the end of the thousand-mile journey, the members of this crew of veteran underground fire-fighters found portions of the mine, the largest gold-producing operation on the American continent, choked with volumes of smoke so thick and dense that, although a breathing-apparatus man might grope through, no ray of light could penetrate the murk to guide the rescuer in the grim work that must be done. Applying a knowledge gained by years of combatting flame, smoke and gas in devious subterranean passages, the rescue men from the neighbor Republic, in cooperation with the underground officials of the mine, using brattice-cloth screens to direct the air currents, cleared up the mine atmosphere in short order, thus rendering it possible to conduct the recovery work safely, quickly and effectively. No huddled survivors of the disaster were found, the evidence being conclusive that practically all those working in the mine, who had not made their escape within a few hours after the breaking-out of the fire, had succumbed during the first furious outburst of flame and smoke. The Bureau of Mines men, with the aid of the hardy and courageous officials and employees of the mine, were, however, able to control the fire, restore normal air conditions in the mine, and in notably short time recovered the bodies of the thirty-nine unfortunate victims.
Vital Questions Quickly Decided
The first appeal for help sent by officials of the burning mine was hardly definite enough to enable the Bureau of Mines men in Washington to determine the nature and seriousness of the emergency. Coming near the end of a day of routine desk work, the appeal set up numerous vital and novel problems for whose solution there was but little time available. It was the first time in the history of the Bureau of Mines that another country had asked for aid of this kind.
One question that immediately arose involved the legality of sending the Bureau’s men and equipment out of the country. Furthermore, the ten rescue cars of the Bureau of Mines are at all times widely scattered, and are generally engaged in educational work in some of the most remote parts of the mining regions of the United States where rail, telegraph and telephone facilities are strictly limited. As a consequence, the cars are not held at strategic railway points in instant readiness to proceed to the scene of a mine disaster, but are generally out “on the job” engaged in instructing employees and operating officials in the different mining fields as well as in quarries and metallurgical and petroleum plants.
Question of Legality Cleared Up
With the first flash of the tragic news from the far Northland, officials at the Bureau’s Washington administrative quarters got into action. Director Scott Turner, who had seen many years of service in directing the technical work of a large Canadian mining company, telephoned and telegraphed to the officials of the Holltnger Company in Montreal, asking for details of the trouble. The reply from Montreal revealed the serious nature of the disaster. Inquiry as to the legality of the proposed expedition of mercy elicited the opinion that, while there was no precedent for an undertaking of this nature, there should he no legal difficulties, provided that the Bureau’s funds were not expended in the mission. With these details cleared up, the sanction of Secretary Hoover’s Department of Commerce, of which the Bureau of Mines forms a part, was readily obtained.
Deciding Upon Best Unit to Send
In the meantime, Dr. R. R. Sayers, Chief of the Bureau’s Health and Safety Branch, and Daniel Harrington, Chief Engineer of the Safety Division, undertook to solve quickly the difficult problem as to which of the Bureau’s ten widely scattered mine-rescue cars was the most available for this unusual service.
Car No. 3, which was at Jenners, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining town some 75 miles south of Pittsburgh, was selected as being the most available for the extraordinary service. In charge of this car was Russell G. Thornburg, foreman miner, lately transferred to the car after a long period of service in rescue work in the metal and coal-mining districts of Alaska. Car No. 3 is the Bureau’s “crack” mine-rescue car. having only recently been built and put into service, and embodying the last word in this highly specialized type of equipment. Another factor was the comparative proximity of car 3 to the Bureau’s big experiment station at Pittsburgh, where ample supplies of the scientific devices and apparatus needed in mine-fire fighting were available, and also where additional experts in underground rescue-operations could be readily recruited.
Starting Car 3 Northward
With car 3 definitely selected, the next task was to get her rolling northward. Jenners, Pa., does not happen to lie along the main line of a great railroad, but is some junctions removed from such location. Several long-distance telephone calls and various telegraphic messages sent from Washington and from Pittsburgh, with which Washington had got into immediate telephone as well as telegraph communication, failed to elicit any response. As the hours wore on, the situation looked had, when a fortunate break occurred. Thornburg, the foreman miner in charge of the car, happened tc go some three or four miles out of his way to telephone the Pittsburgh station in regard to routine matters and this enabled the delivery of the urgent message.
Thornburg immediately got busy with the problem of getting a special engine hitched to his mine-rescue car, at the moment reposing on a little-used side-track in a remote corner of the Appalachian hills. The hour was near midnight, and the task of getting the special engine and car No. 3 together was not an easy one. Thornburg, however, got his engine, and soon car No. 3, the newest, best-equipped mine-rescue car in the world, was in motion. Down the little mountain spur she rumbled to the junction of Somerset, some 12 miles away; then the car was switched to another short line for the run to Rockwood, 9 miles distant. The car arrived at Rockwood, Pa., on the main line of the B. & O. Railroad, at 4 o’clock Saturday morning, February 11. At Rockwood, a regular B. & O. through passenger train was caught, which soon brought the car into Pittsburgh.
Personnel of Expedition Made Up
Daniel Harrington, Chief Engineer of the Safety Division and a veteran of many underground disasters in both coal and metal mines, coming from Washington, joined the car at Pittsburgh. George S. McCaa, C hief of the Bureau’s primary instruction unit, and the inventor of a widely-used type of oxygen-breathing apparatus, who had been fighting a mine-fire at Wilkes Barre, Pa., also joined the car there. S. H. Katz, famous for his research in mine gases and gas masks, happened to be on car 3, and was detailed to accompany the expedition. Associated with Thornburg in active detail on the car was Joseph Ferraro. Two other expert metal-mine fire-fighters, F. C. Gregory, engineer in charge of the Bureau’s Duluth, Minn., office, and A. J. Martinson, foreman miner in charge of rescue car No. 5, were ordered to proceed directly from Duluth to Timmins. Thus one of the most notable squads of specialists in the science of underground fire-fighting ever assembled was gathered for the long trip northward.
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Equipment of the Car
The mine-rescue cars of the Bureau of Mines are equipped with quite a variety of novel devices and apparatus designed especially for the grim work of detecting and combatting flame, fume and gas underground. Car No. 3, being the highest attainment in the way of a rolling mine-fire fighting laboratory, is provided with many additional interesting devices. Extra equipment from the big mine-rescue station at Pittsburgh was hastily loaded. When the car headed northward, there were on board 15 sets of oxygen-breathing apparatus; 12 all-service gas masks; 24 carbon monoxide self-rescuers; 6 permissible flame safety lamps; 24 permissible electric flash-lights; 10 permissible electric caplamps; 10 cylinders of oxygen; 4 canaries; iodine pentoxide carbon monoxide detectors; Orsat gas-analysis apparatus as well as numerous other devices which might be needed.
Each set of breathing apparatus is capable of supplying the wearer with breathable oxygen for at least two hours in any smoke or gas-reeking mine atmosphere. The little self-rescuers, worn suspended from the belt, will filter poisonous fumes from air and are exceedingly useful in a pinch. The gas masks taken are considered to give protection against more varieties of deadly gases than any other type of mask, but do not provide oxygen —hence they can not be worn, like the breathing apparatus, in atmospheres deficient in oxygen. The carbon monoxide detectors are ingenious devices which warn of the presence of this deadly gas through change in color of a certain chemical compound. The gas-analysis apparatus enables the observer, through an analysis of an air sample taken anywhere in a mine, to determine whether fire may be raging or poisonous carbon monoxide or inflammable methane be prevalent in that particular area. Each oxygen cylinder contained 10 cubic feet of oxygen under approximately 2,000 pounds pressure. The canaries were veterans of Uncle Sam’s minesafety service and had often before, by drooping or toppling from their perches, warned their human comrades that dangerous accumulations of carbon monoxide were being reached. Everything on the car represented the last word in scientific mine-rescue equipment. Everything was “permissible,” meaning that it was of a type tested at the Pittsburgh Experiment Station of the Bureau of Mines and approved as being the safest type of equipment available.
Other Devices Carried
Car No. 3, in addition to a complete equipment of mine-safety devices and apparatus, is also provided with numerous other devices intended to contribute to the efficiency and livability of the car. There are electricalcharging apparatus for use with the electric cap-lamps; a complete electric light generating system ; an air compressor for the car water system ; a motor-driven oxygen pump; a demonstration room for instruction in the use of oxygen-breathing apparatus; an electrical refrigeration system; and complete bathroom, dining room and kitchen arrangements. Beneath the car are specially constructed compartments for the storage of stretchers, oxygen cylinders and other equipment.
Clear Right-of-Way Provided in Record Run
At 9:14 Saturday morning, February 11, the car, with its special engine, headed northward over the Pennsylvania Railroad for Buffalo. American and Canadian railways came through valiantly in the emergency and a clear right-of-way was provided, which allowed the special to reach Buffalo at 3 p. m., to leave Buffalo at 3:20 over the line of the Canadian National, to pull out from Toronto, over the same railroad, at 6:30 p. m. and to draw up at Timmins, 485 miles north of Toronto, at 6:20 Sunday morning, February 12. It was the fastest time ever made between Pittsburgh and Buffalo, clipping 2 hours off the best passenger schedule. An average rate of 47 miles an hour was maintained for the 1,000 mile run, and speeds of 70 miles an hour and more were attained, although long stretches of track on the northern part of the run consisted of snake-like curves, while 4 feet of snow lay packed through the northern forests. At the international boundary, customs inspectors were waived. Everyone everywhere contributed his utmost to the acceleration of the long northward flight of the mercy train. The engineer who piloted the locomotive over the lasFnorthern division stuck valiantly to his throttle although nearly frozen when the special at last came to a stop.
This Fire-Fighting Scientific, Orderly Procedure
When finally arrived at their distant destination, the Bureau of Mines volunteers did not immediately don their grotesque breathing apparatus, rush from the car, and plunge into the depths of the burning gold mine. Modern, scientific, mine-fire fighting is not done in this way. Mine fires are insidious forces that do their deadly work in confined underground passages, reeking with smoke, gas and fume and often strewn with almost unsurniountable piles of debris. Knowledge of the layout of the mine’s devious passages—there were nearly 100 miles of underground workings in the Hollinger mine—is necessary. The ability to see where one is going is vital. Nothing is to be gained by a headlong, aimless plunge into a fathomless murk.
The first steps taken by the members of the rescue crew were to learn from the Hollinger Company officials and the Ontario Mine Inspectors the full details of the situation as it stood upon their arrival. Mine-maps were studied carefully. Opinions were exchanged by men to whom the fighting of mine fires was an old, old story. Due to the efforts of members of the Hollinger mine forces, aided by volunteers who had arrived the day before on a special train from Toronto bearing gas masks and fire-fighting equipment loaned by the Mayor of that city, 13 men entombed at the outbreak of the fire had been rescued. The lack of oxygen-breathing apparatus such as is carried by the Bureau of Mines cars had prevented a more thorough exploration of the mine. There was scant hope that any of the other missing men would be found alive.
Penetrate Smoke-Filled Passages
At 8 o’clock Sunday morning the Bureau of Mines men went underground. They had, for company in their hazardous enterprise, most of the mine officials, from the General Manager, A. F. Brigham, down, mine inspectors of Ontario, and a number of the rank and file of the mine employees.
The passages of the smouldering mine in proximity to the fire were filled with volumes of smoke so dense that one could see no farther than a foot or so ahead. While the men, with their oxygen apparatus, could penetrate this fume-reeking atmosphere, they were practically helpless to do more than grope their waj’ around. The situation is comparable to that of one. provided with no manner of light, feeling his way through the profound blackness of the Mammoth cave.
Clearing the Atmosphere in the Mine
To the veterans who had come near a thousand miles to fight the Hollinger fire demon, the problem admitted of but one solution. The mine atmosphere must be cleared, in the shortest possible time, of much of the blinding smoke that blocked all recovery operations. To attain this end, a method long used successfully in curbing coal-mine fires, the manipulation and regulation of the air currents by means of canvas screens or brattices placed at strategic points, was immediately brought into play. By forcing the air first through one passage, then through another, the ways through which the men were to advance could be cleared. Air compressors forced the pure life-sustaining surface atmosphere into every crevice of the underground passages, taking the place of the dense volumes of smoke and gas. For hours, the rescue men advanced, supported by this everincreasing barrage of fresh air.
Isolating the Powder Magazine
The general objective was the smouldering fire area, the origin of the blinding smoke and deadly gases, but special consideration must also be given to the powder magazine, located a bare 300 feet from the fire-center. There was at all times an abundance of efficient help and of all kinds of necessary materials in prosecuting this very important work.
By 11 :30 the powder magazine was reached. The job of erecting brattices to isolate the magazine from the source of the gas and fumes consumed some time, and it was 1 :45 p. m. before air conditions permitted the bringing of the bodies of two men from the powder house. Meanwhile, other crews, directed their efforts towards reaching the fire. It was 5:20 p. m. when the worn workers reached the fire-center. At 6:45 p. m. two streams of water from 1200 feet of hose were directed ujion the fire. Bv midnight, in places where it had been utterly impossible to see objects a foot or so away, the bodies of the unfortunate victims were being pulled out. All Sunday night they worked, and all through Monday. Monday night and part of Tuesday. before their work was done.
Fire Center Finally Reached
So thoroughly had the mine passages been cleared of noxious gas and fumes by Monday that nearly all of the work of recovering the bodies of the unfortunate victims was performed in fresh air. The men wore oxygen breathing apparatus and gas masks chiefly as a precautionary measure. The canaries played their usual parts as sentinels ready to warn if the deadly carbon monoxide appeared, and the mine employees early manifested utmost dependence on “birdie.”
Their task completed, the Bureau of Mines men began their return journey. But this time they proceeded on the more leisurely schedule provided for a regular passenger train. On their return to Toronto on February 15 the crack rescue car was jammed from 9 a. m. to the time of its departure at 5:45 p. m. with crowds of Canadian citizens who desired to voice their appreciation of its unprecedented run.
Appreciation from the Canadians
More than 2,000 visitors were received, including a large proportion of the membership of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and of the student body of the University of Toronto. A reception was tendered the members of the crew in the Ontario Parliament Building, where Premier G. Howard Ferguson gave expression of Canada’s gratefulness for the help that had been extended by her neighbor to the south. At the famous National Club, of which Director Scott Turner of the United States Bureau of Mines is a member. T. W. Gibson, Deputy Minister of the Ontario Department of Mines, presided at a luncheon in the course of which further evidences of appreciation of this friendly international “invasion” were voiced. A deluge of letters of appreciation has been received by Director Turner, including communications from Hon. Charles McCrea, Minister, Ontario Department of Mines; Alexander Macl^ean, Chairman, Toronto Branch, Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy; H. E. T. Haultain, of the Department of Mining Engineering, University of Toronto; and N. A. Timmins, A. F. Brigham and John Knox. President, Gencral Manager, and Assistant General Manager of the Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines, I.td. “1 write, as Minister of the Department of Mines of Ontario, to express my very sincere appreciation of the valuable aid and help given by your Department,” says Mr. McCrea. “Much favorable comment is heard everywhere of your neighborly act, and I hope such cordial relations may long exist as a bond between your people and ours and between the mining fraternity of the United States and Canada.”