Thursday, January 29, 2009

Home at Last

Wow!  Winter travel can be interesting indeed.  With our hazard training complete, we were ready to go underground Wednesday.  But Tuesday evening it kept raining.  Raining and 26 degrees.  How does that happen?  Back at the hotel after dinner, the power went out.  No problem.  Cindy and I met in the hallway with the mission of using our underground batteries and lights in our room.  'We're cool', we thought.  Then the power came back on for a while.  The TV announced a "State of Emergency" for Kentucky.  Not cool!
In the night, the power went out for good.  I covered my head and tried to sleep, knowing there would not be staff at the mine to run our section again.  But it was worse.  We learned in the morning that the mine didn't even have power.  Then we saw our truck - encased in a shell of ice 1/2 to an inch thick.  Somehow, Cindy got the passenger door open and started it up.  We let it run hoping it would thaw while we used our cell phones to call co-workers for information and advice.  
It took over an hour of chipping and tugging and pushing on doors - waiting - trying again - to get into our truck.  Our mission was to head north trying to find a hotel with power, listen to radio reports, and decide what was safe to do.  Our boss had located hotels just miles north of us with power.  But as we listened to reports, saw the trees about to topple on lines, and passed traffic signals that were dark, it seemed likely that power outages would continue to occur. Reports said some places could be without power through the weekend.  Meanwhile, the roads were snow covered and plowed.  Traffic was light.  We had 4 wheel drive and moving slow was safe.  
About an hour north we encountered bare tread marks on the road and it got better as we went.  No precipitation.  So we keep going north.  Then headed east at Terre Haute - all the while listening to reports of power outages along our route, monitoring radar on my cell phone, and calling co-workers who were checking for us on line.  Finally, we were on bare roads.  Homeward bound!  All the while, it ate at us that we had not been able to complete our final mission at the Kentucky mine.  Failing a mission, whatever the cause, does not sit well with either Cindy or I.  
We focused on how nice it would be to finally sleep in our own homes and our own beds.  And Cindy was really missing her husband.  I was missing my Molly mutt.  We were happy to sense home was just hours away.  Then as the sun went down, so did our hopes for reaching home.  All along the way, when we hit underpasses, we were encountering black ice.  It was brief and expected so we adjusted.  But, at Akron, black ice was random and anywhere.  Suddenly, we began seeing cars off the road having just wrecked.  We decided to stop for the night.  We were both exhausted and sad.  We agreed to get going again at 7 am.
I wanted to ignore the alarm - just another hour - but...  As the sun came up the roads were better, though still requiring caution.  We began to relax as we came to the PA border.  THEN, just one more rush of Adrenalin when Cindy's husband, Scott, called to say he had just been in an accident on I-80 as he was going to work.  We were less than 30 miles away.  It seemed forever to get to him.  By some miracle, his little car and he had encountered two semi's, he was forced into the deep snow at the side of the road, and he was fine.  A tow truck pulled his car out, and though a bit dented, he was even able to drive it home.   
By the time we all reached Franklin our co-workers said we looked shell shocked.  We showed off the ice crust still on the mirror's and the top of the truck.  Scott showed off the dented little car.  We had plenty of help unloading our stuff.
I guess if there is a moral to this story it is that no mission is more important than life.  I'm imagining Cindy and Scott in their hot tub tonight, happy to be together and safe.  I am sitting here with Molly mutt - happy to be together and safe.  And I am mindful of our friends in Kentucky - hoping they are well, happy, together and safe!  This time, the mission will have to wait.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Not today

Winter travel can be interesting.  When we were planning this trip, I feared Wyoming in the winter.  Been there when they closed I-80 behind us after a brutal morning where we nearly skidded off a cliff at the surface mine.  But this time, Wyoming was great and the drive from there to Kentucky was fine.  Now, in Kentucky, we have encountered an ice storm.  
Yesterday they were not ready for us at the mine.  So, we charged batteries, worked in our rooms and rested from the long two days of driving.  Our hearts sank when we woke this morning to find the truck encased in ice and expected that would mean staffing problems at the mine.  But we loaded up all the batteries and headed out.  The less traveled roads were crusted with 2 inches of ice.  Lucky it's pretty flat here in NW KY but we had to drive around a semi at a traffic light.  He stopped for the red light and couldn't move.  The worst leg was the last two miles of side road into the mine site.  Little traveled and not plowed, it was best to stay in the packed tracks and avoid the crusted, slushy sides.  Even 4 wheel drive can't keep you from being tossed around when you get caught up in the slush.  
At the mine we soon learned that our section was not running due to staffing.  So, we did the required hazard training.  It began with a well produced video providing an overview of the mine and the equipment they use.  This is a slope mine - meaning we ride a slope down into the mine.  No elevator.  They ride in on a "mantrip" that would remind you of an a theme park ride on tracks.  It's a bit lower than the west.  We'll sit in the little train to get to the bottom.  Then they have diesel vehicles to get to the section.
In addition to the video and review of the mine map, the safety guy had two CSR's - self rescuers - that are used at this mine.  First is the one we carry on our minebelt.  It's chemically based.  We reviewed the steps to opening it up and donning it.  It will last an hour.  Then, this mine has a larger CSR on all "mantrips" and every 5000 feet along the escape route.  The larger CSR contains an oxygen tank.  On both CSR's, the mouthpiece and the basic use is similar to scuba gear.  There's a clamp for your nose and there are goggles for your eyes.  He had me practice how to transition from one CSR to the next.  
Then we reviewed the rescue rope.  If the mine becomes smoke filled and you cannot see the reflective markers showing the primary or secondary escape ways, you follow the rope.  It has cone shaped markers, smaller at one end and bigger at the other.  If you hit the bigger part first, you are going the wrong direction.  This mine also has foam markers and a rope down to lead you to fresh CSR's.  Finally, he showed us electronic tracking devices that we will carry, as does every miner here.  I had heard about these but have never been in a mine that uses them.  They are a bit larger than a 50 cent piece and about 1/2 inch deep.  The miner's have them permanently attached to their hard hats.  We will latch them on ours.  With these, they can follow our progress and monitor our location at all times.  This was one of the best hazard training's I've ever had.  I am impressed with the investment this mine has made in safety.  The CSR's are not cheap and I'm certain the tracking devices are not either.    
As the safety guy said, "I pray you will never need to use this"  but while I've been doing this 13 years now, I am always thankful for the time spent in hazard training.  I know that mine disaster's in the US are, much like flight disaster's, far and few between.   But when they do happen, it often makes the news.  What makes the difference is the training of all involved.  And these guys are good.
Let's hope the weather is better tomorrow and we can get our job done and head home.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Catching up

We went underground Friday morning bright and early.  It was unseasonably warm in Wyoming and they broke the day high on Thursday.  Knowing how to dress to go underground is always an issue.  Usually the ventilation causes a pretty big draft and it's chilly but we learned it was near 80 at the face.  
Before going underground we always do hazard training with the Safety guy.  They show us the mine map, where we'll be, the primary and secondary escape routes and how each are marked.   We review our self rescuers which will give us an hour of good air to get back out.   And we go over the conditions at that mine - gases, roof conditions and any special instructions to remember.  
Then we gear up - metatarsal rubber boots, hard hat, mine belt on which we carry the rescuer and battery for the cap light which fits on the hard hat.  Every mine has a board where we hang a tag or in this case take a brass tag in our pocket that's numbered matching our number on the sign up list.  This way they know who's underground at any given time.  
We enter the biggest elevator I've ridden in - capacity for 80 people - an open grated box - and descend slowly about 1500 feet.  At the bottom is a huge room with a 20 or 30 foot vaulted ceiling lined with horizontal boards.  Diesel CJ 5's, formerly mail delivery jeeps, are the primary source of transportation.  5 of us make several trips to carry all our gear and load the waiting chariot.  The safety guy, his assistant and one of our company guys working that mine, are our escorts and never let us out of sight - which is appreciated.  
They drive us back about 5 miles through the interconnected web of tunnels that are about 6 feet high.  Every 30 feet or so we pass entries leading to other sections.  All are marked with big painted numbers.  The mine is about 30 miles square and I learned we had traveled under I-80.  Once we get to the Longwall, the roof in much higher - about 10 feet.  The system is about 800 feet long and we walk under the roof supports.  The system lights weren't yet on, so we immediately began setting up our lights - 9 of them - spaced 6 feet or so apart.  We fix the lights to magnets which hold strong on the roof supports.  Because the system wasn't running yet, we could backlight this time, placing 3 lights mounted low right on their batteries.  
I'm used to working in coal so it was very dramatic when we turned on the lights in this Trona mine.  It's a light grey and seemed incredibly bright to me.  Everything was clean because the system hadn't run.  It had a slight sulfur smell but not overpowering.  We worked quickly to get our photos and video.  
A very important part of all mine visits is handing out stickers.  Miners love to put stickers on their hard hats and they are proud of the equipment they run.  So, we brought some latest Longwall shearer and roof support stickers.
We try not to overstay our welcome wherever we go.  Here, as in most mines, the workers are very cordial but they have a job to do and we are a distraction.  We worked about 4 hours and were back in the jeeps heading out.  
Reaching the top is a sweet thing.  I always end the day with a great respect for the people who work underground every day.  They are a special lot reminding me much of firefighters in their connection to one another.  While they are very serious about safety and their jobs, they have that same sense of humor I've seen between fire fighters - nicknames and teasing one another.  
These folks would want me to tell you about how Trona is used and you use it every day.  It's one of the ingredients in glass.  It makes laundry detergent and the best grade is refined into baking soda.  So, the next time you use those products, think about the hundreds of people working underground in Wyoming making it possible.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Scenic distraction

We were getting a bit stir crazy working in the hotel so it was time for a few hours of touring.  
Flaming Gorge bound.

The terrain changes so quickly in these parts.  Flat high desert gives way to rocky formations filled with reds, greens, and yellows.  In the distance Wasach mountains meet the low clouds.

We trekked a wide circle from Rock Springs to Flaming Gorge on 191 and back to Green River.  The Dam at Flaming Gorge is huge with over 1 million tons of concrete.  It has created a beautiful reservoir with colorful islands.

A highlight for both of us was to see antelope.
We also saw turkey and mule deer.

This evening I packed the batteries in the truck and we'll be going underground tomorrow.

I'll collect images for you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ready and waiting

Coming from the hills of Pennsylvania, this area seems baren - especially in the winter.  These trees are short and dark - Juniper's I believe.  In fact, we were looking for wildlife and kept imagining trees were buffalo.  Things are spread out, and there's a lot of exposed ground and rock.  I love the rich color of the land.  

Today, the focus was preparing to go underground and, while waiting, working on what one can from the road.  The one thing I've learned through the years, is to expect the unexpected.  There may be a delay this time that could mean getting little video but we should still get the photos needed.  In that case, my primary task will be lighting.  
Lighting is a major job underground.  We use battery powered fluorescent lights.  The lights are in watertight housings which also protects them from the dust.  We'll carry in 10 batteries which weigh about 30 lbs each and will last 3 hours on low setting or 6 hours on high.  Between the lights, the batteries, the light stands and tripods, we'll fill up the back of a jeep.  At this mine, we'll drive in Jeep Wranglers.  It's a big mine, as most are in the west, with a 12 foot seam.  It's a Trona mine and unlike coal, it's a very light colored material so it will be much easier to light.  
This evening we'll meet with the project manager and learn if we go in tomorrow or have another day to wait.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Destination Wyoming

We set off for the Pittsburgh airport at 5:30 am.  Arrived in Salt Lake City just before 2 pm local time.  It's been a while since I flew into Salt Lake.  As you descend, the mountains grow bigger on each side of the wide valley.  Everyone on the plane silently stares out the window - all immersed in this 3D movie.  It envelops you - stark, grand, snow covered peaks - and at the same time there is a feeling of wide open spaces with that big sky of the west.
At the airport I suddenly remembered, as I saw the "Welcome Sundance" signs, that our filmmaker friends Joe and Dean are HERE.  We got our rental, headed toward Wyoming on I-80 and I called them.  'Joe, you will never guess where I am'.  "You're in Utah at Sundance", he said.  (I think he is intuitive) We were driving right past and met for a late lunch.  So, an unexpected turn in our great adventure.  Cindy and I can now say we were at Sundance!  Ok, actually, we can say we had lunch with Joe and Dean while they were at Sundance.  It was great to hear about their experiences so far and I'll later post links to whatever they are sharing about it.  
A short lunch and back on the road.  We picked up our equipment at the warehouse in Green River, WY and finally made it to our hotel.  A very long day.  Tomorrow I will post some photos from the drive - before it got dark.  Tonight, I'm charging batteries - both mine and those we need to use underground in the days ahead.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Getting Started

Last night friends suggested I start a blog about my trip which begins tomorrow.  It's inauguration day - the most historic in my lifetime.  That's where they will be tomorrow.  I will miss it and will be anxious to read their blogs describing the experience.  So, it seems ironic that they suggest I blog about my trip.  For fun I will.  
I've made dozens of trips like this.  I'm a videographer for a great company that manufactures underground mining equipment.  Our photographer and I are off to Green River Wyoming to tape and photograph a longwall mining system.  We then drive to Henderson, KY and go underground at another mine.  
It's interesting work and we see places few people see, but what is probably more remarkable is that two women make up this team.  I don't go underground as much as I used to but our main cameraman, Pete (whose footage you may have seen on Modern Marvels and the History Channel) is working for us in Poland this week.  
If you read this and wonder "what's remarkable about two women going underground", I would be pleased to hear it.  It would be a measure for me about how far things have come since my career began in Armed Forces Radio and Television in 1979.  Then, there were few women in any form of media production and when I reported in, the station manager said, "You should know the broad in broadcasting does not stand for women."  And when I first started going underground nearly 14 years ago, few mines even had a women's bathroom.   I heard, more than once, that it had traditionally been considered unlucky for a woman to be underground.
I've witnessed the evolution of two industries - the media - and mining.  So, join me on this trip and I'll share a little bit of what I've seen and what I'm seeing now.