Many of the best international mine rescue teams were in Reno this week testing their skills in three days of competition at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Five men of the Cargill Deicing Technology "Rescue Runners" team were linked by a chain as they shuffled through a maze while carrying 40 pounds of equipment, oxygen tanks and a stretcher for evacuations. They moved cautiously, using flashlights and sticks to feel for collapsed ceilings and other hazards as they attempted to perform a rescue during a simulated mine fire.
Wives, children and other mining rescue workers watched from bleachers. Judges walked beside the teams and graded their performances as they stopped the oxygen flow to the fire, administered first aid and evacuated survivors.
Teams wait in isolation before the competition.
"They have to wait all day like expectant fathers," said Gerald Holeman, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration assistant district manager. "It drives them nuts."
Thirty-three American teams and 10 from seven other countries participated.
Cargill safety director and team trainer Antonde Branch, 26, said the team practices eight hours a month.
"You have to be a close-knit group of guys because you have to be able to trust them with your life," said Lynn Bayard, 53, captain and oldest member of the "Rescue Runners." "We train in the smoke so we can get used to that, but you can't train for an injury or a dead body. You don't know how you're going to react to that."
Rod Etie, 63, of Avery Island, La., was inducted into the Mine Rescue Hall of Fame at the convention. He said being able to help one person makes it all worthwhile. He was a mine rescue worker for 20 years at the Cargill Salt Mine in Louisiana.
In 1979, an explosion at the Belle Isle, La., salt mine trapped 15 miners and killed five. Etie was a team captain during that disaster and was able to find all five bodies, despite the mine being filled with thick smoke.
Bayard said the sense of brotherhood is strong among rescue miners.
A member of Morton Salt's "Team Texas" told Bayard they initially were upset because "Rescue Runners" beat them.
But he told his teammates: "Don't be mad, because if we get in trouble those are the guys that are coming to get us."