PINEVILLE, W.Va. - Cliffs Natural Resources' Pinnacle Mine has some new hardware to add to its collection.
The Wyoming County mine's rescue team took home the top prize at the 2013 National Coal Mine Rescue Competition in Columbus.
The bi-annual competition welcomed 85 teams from 12 states. The competition was sponsored by the National Mining Association and administered by the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration. It was held in mid-August at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Ryan Thorn, public affairs coordinator for the Pinnacle Mine in Pineville, said the mine has two rescue teams composed of volunteers who risk their own lives to save their fellow workers.
"The blue and white rescue teams compete every year at various local competitions in either West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio or Alabama," Thorn said.
The teams compete in four or five mine rescue competitions each year. The national competition is held every other year and is considered the most prestigious competition in the coal industry.
Richard Crockett, trainer for the Pinnacle rescue teams, said only one team was allowed to compete in the national competition.
"We could only send one (team) because we didn't want a lot of our guys away from the mine," Crockett said. "The blue team competed in a 2011 competition in Ohio and placed 8th out of 104 teams.
"These guys were more experienced and deserved another chance for finishing well in 2011."
The four-day competition had events ranging from first aid, bench and pre-shift to the more complex simulated mine rescue scenarios that involve hypothetical emergency situations that test the rescue and safety abilities of the competitors.
Thorn said a lot of problem solving went into play and the team was faced with real-life situations.
Chad Lester, captain of the Pinnacle blue mine rescue team, said the scenarios were simulated and everyone had to work together.
"During the competition, we were faced with people stuck behind barricades when there was low oxygen or carbon monoxide present," Lester said. "We had to go in and rescue those people and bring them out."
Each team member had to wear a breathing apparatus, which weighs nearly 40 pounds.
The team completed both days of team events without a single error and achieved the fastest problem solving time on the second day of competition.
There was also a written examination portion of the event.
Cody Palmer, member of the Pinnacle rescue team, said the team stayed up late the night before the competition and prepared for the exam.
"We had to know all 100 questions word-for-word although they only chose 10 to be on the test," Palmer said. "We didn't know who in our team would take the test so we all had to study hard. A die was rolled the morning of the exam to determine which team member would complete it."
In total, there were 10 team members, including the trainer and captain, present at the competition. Only six, however, participated in the events. The others served as alternates in case someone had to sit out.
Thorn compares the national competition to a NASCAR race.
"It's really cool," Thorn said. "Each team has their own trailer set up in the parking lot with their company flags waving atop of it. There is a lot of pride that goes into mine rescue."
The competition took place inside the convention center, which is unlike all of the local contests the Pinnacle mine rescue team has been to.
There are roughly 12 fields set up inside the facility. Each team has to work individually.
Following the competition, teams sat through an awards ceremony.
"When they called our team, I think we were all shocked and surprised," Palmer said. "It was an emotional time for all of us. All of the hard work we did finally paid off."
To prepare for competitions, Crockett sets up problems for them during practice that they have to solve. In addition, he goes over statements of fact that may be included in the written exam. On average, the team spends nearly a month a year at competitions and spends seven hours a week outside of their regular job duties doing mine rescue training.
The members of the mine rescue teams volunteer their time. The Mine Safety and Health Administration does, however, require all miners to complete at least 40 hours of refresher training each year.
"There are some miners who get off their shift at 8 a.m. and then go put in a couple hours of practice," Crockett said. "These guys are dedicated, that's for sure."
"Safety is Cliffs' No. 1 priority and these guys love their jobs and care about the safety of one another," Crockett said. "Some of these guys belong to coal mining families and their families know the risks they take when they go underground."
Crockett said mine rescue is a huge commitment and the miners' wives have to buy into it.
"Winning the national competition was like winning the Super Bowl for us," Palmer said. "We have received more respect from our company and from our co-workers. It feels good to have a company back you.
"Scared is not an option when we do mine rescue. We have to be prepared, and mine rescue training has definitely prepared us to tackle any possible scenario we may run into."
The National Coal Mine Rescue Competition was started in 1910 by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and is the largest of its kind.
"To take home this prize proves that our employees are truly among the very best in the industry and that their work and dedication pays off," said David Webb, Cliffs' senior vice president of global coal.
"It's also a reflection of our entire organization's focus on being among the national leaders in safety, production and efficiency."
The Pinnacle Mine employs nearly 500 miners and mines metallurgical coal, which is used in steel production. More than 50 percent of the coal produced at the Pineville location is shipped overseas.
Unlike the Alpha Mine layoffs in Boone County and the James River Coal layoffs in eastern Ky., the Pinnacle Mine's work force has been stable for several years.
For more information, visit www.cliffsnaturalresources.com.