SALT LAKE CITY — Emery County, Utah, EMT Pete Alger had no idea that such a disaster was unfolding when his pager went off about 3 a.m. on Aug. 6.
When his ambulance crew reached the Crandall Canyon mine a half-hour later, there would be no patients to treat. When it finally became apparent six miners were trapped underground, the prolonged rescue effort would test Emery County’s volunteer ambulance corps.
His faith in his fellow EMTs would only grow when the worst-case scenario happened 10 days later, killing three rescuers and injuring six. That trust was personified by Sue Copinga, a 62-year-old widow and grandmother of 19 who didn’t hesitate when called into the mine’s depths to treat the victims.
Alger and Copinga are among hundreds of people — miners, deputies, equipment suppliers, store owners, drillers, everyday folks — who rushed to help in Utah’s worst mine disaster since 1984, when 27 died in a fire at the Wilberg mine.
The ambulance crews “worked very well together,” said Alger, 51, of Huntington, an emergency medical technician since 1992. After all, crews from all over the county — Huntington, Castle Dale, Ferron, Emery and neighboring Carbon County — teamed up. “I think we did a spectacular job, I do.”
Alger is no braggart. His supervisor, Jim Gordon, calls him a “gentle, concerned and humble individual,” the kind of level-headed guy you want responding to a highway wreck, hiking accident or a call from a mine in the middle of the night.
Driving to the mine on Aug. 6, Alger wasn’t worried. The call had come in as a seismic event. Based on 28 years as a miner, he knew the people underground often didn’t feel such movements. Even at the mine portal, as men headed in to evaluate the situation, things didn’t look so bad.
“We were up there a good 1 1/2 hours before we actually knew there were miners trapped,” Alger said. “Still, you kind of expected to see them coming out one of the other escape ways. It took a little time before they realized all of the escape ways were cut off.”
His confidence never flagged as rescue teams searched for ways around the debris-clogged tunnels that led to the section that was being worked by the missing miners — Manuel Sanchez, Kerry Allred, Luis Hernandez, Don Erickson, Carlos Payan and Brandon Phillips.
“I don’t think even some of the best mining people would’ve predicted just how severe it was,” Alger said. But when his next shift began the following day, his heart sank. During the night, rescue crews had lost ground. Fallen debris choked newly cleared tunnels.
“They had to pull out because the mine got to bouncing to where it was endangering people,” he said.
Two days later, the news was worse — oxygen levels underground were found to be too low to support life for long.
Still, Alger said, “there was hope these people barricaded themselves in” and were surviving on stored oxygen canisters and fresh air pumped into the working face.
Copinga sensed the same desperate resolve during her three shifts at the mine. “It was difficult to know another day had gone by without a lot of progress. But we knew the guys were doing everything that could be done.”
Emery County people are tenacious, added Copinga.
“You have no idea how a small area like this reacts when there is a disaster. It’s not just donating something to a cause. This is personal to us. There aren’t many people brought out alive after that many days. But that doesn’t stop you from praying for a miracle.”
That sort of grit comes naturally to her.
She has coped with the loss of her husband, Menco, who died 10 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2001. At work in the Castle View Hospital emergency room in Price, she’s known as Grandma Sue for her ability to soothe ailing children.
Copinga did not become an EMT until she was in her 50s. It took weeks of begging Sgt. Martin Wilson, who oversees the county’s ambulance, to get a job as a paid volunteer.
“I promised him I’d be a good EMT, that I’d make him proud,” Copinga said.
At first, Crandall Canyon offered little opportunity.
As rescuers inched forward, she read, dozed and watched mine operator Robert Murray, worried he would have a heart attack. Every now and then, she walked to the kitchen to chat with miners about their progress. Copinga was there on Aug. 16 when a miner rushed in.
“Get to your ambulance,” he told her. “We’ve had another cave-in.”
Like all EMTs sent to the mine, Copinga had been trained, briefly, on going underground. After that, she and crewmate Stacey Gordon decided that if the call came, Copinga would go. “Stacey has six kids,” Copinga reasoned. “My kids are all raised.”
The miner, whom she knows only as Larry, fixed her up with a hard hat and a breathing apparatus as another miner drove them into the mine in a pickup. Larry warned her sternly: “I don’t want to have to turn around and wonder where you are.”
She replied, “Unless you lose your back pocket, you’re not going to have to.”
On the way in, another pickup came barreling out the narrow tunnel.
“All the guys were yelling at us, ‘Get out of the way. We’ve got a patient going out.’ I started yelling, ‘Do you want me with you?’ But they were driving faster than they could hear. They just kept going.”
Her pickup stopped 50 yards from the second implosion. It was cold, wet. Copinga’s adrenaline was pumping. She followed Larry to just shy of where a wall had blown in.
Copinga handed blankets and a stretcher to the rescuers, and gave her condolences to Murray, who had come back from the face muttering, “This is bad. Oh, this is really bad.”
She watched for her patient, catching glimpses through a shifting “curtain of men in the darkness with their coal-soiled clothes.”
Eventually, the miners handed out the man on a stretcher, fire-brigade style, and slid him into the pickup’s bed. Copinga, Larry and another miner jumped in. Their driver took off.
Copinga inched back toward the open tailgate to tie rags and a shirt around her patient’s bare feet. She struggled to take blood pressure readings by headlamp. All the while, she and the other miners talked to the agitated man, who kept vowing never to go underground again.
At the surface, ambulances and EMTs waited. Alger helped treat the nine victims, then drove Copinga, her patient and another injured miner to the hospital. There, Copinga helped reunite her patient with his relieved wife.
The next hours would be tough for the EMTs. Emotions set aside while working welled up. Alger will never forget an uninjured rescuer sitting on a chair outside the mine and bawling. “When you work on an ambulance, your senses get dull because you see so much. But that really brought it back to life, him crying about his fellow crew members being hurt and killed,” he said.
He thought of rescuer Dale Black, who was killed and whom he had talked to the night before. And of crewmate Leonard Norton, who had performed triage on federal mine inspector Gary Jensen — and talked to him — only to learn later that Jensen died. “It really tore Leonard’s heart out,” Alger said.
Her work done, Copinga needed to talk. So she and the Gordons, Jim and Stacey, drove to the mine, collected a few things and returned to Huntington.
“I was able to tell Jim some of my disappointments, some of the things I was happy with and things I would have done differently,” she said.
To ambulance boss Wilson, Copinga’s underground venture was something “you can’t train into EMTs. They have it or they don’t.”
She made him proud.
About the rescue crews
* AGE: 51
* HOMETOWN: Huntington
* FAMILY: Wife, Ilene, and father of four
* WORK: Employed at Huntington power plant, after 28 years at Deer Creek coal mine; member of Huntington ambulance unit, Huntington volunteer fire department, and Emery County search and rescue squad
* QUOTE: “The more I got involved, the more I wanted to get involved more.”
* AGE: 63
* HOMETOWN: Elmo
* FAMILY: Widow of Menco, mother of five, grandmother of 19
* WORK: Employed in Castle View Hospital emergency room
* QUOTE: “We came down with the intent to move back to Salt Lake after our three years on the [power plant] job were up. But after three years in Emery County, I defy anybody to move out of here. I tell people I came down here kicking and screaming and I would leave the same way.”Pete Alger and Sue Copinga are EMTs with the Huntington Ambulance crew.