PIKEVILLE — Mine safety advocates in Eastern Kentucky say coal mining communities were watching and rejoicing Wednesday over the rescue of 33 Chilean gold and silver miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months.
"Everybody that I've talked to today has been watching," said retired Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector Stanley Sturgill, of Lynch.
"I think it's a wonderful thing," he said. "It's just unreal that something like that can be done. From my understanding, the way the strata of that area lays, it's a miracle that they could drill through to those guys."
Underground miners across the world understand one another like no one else can. They have held their breath as failed rescue operations have proceeded in places such as Upper Big Branch in West Virginia this year and Scotia in Harlan County 34 years ago.
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"It takes a special breed of cat to go down in the bowels of the earth to make a living," said retired coal miner and labor organizer Carl Shoupe, of Benham.
Safety records were poor at the Chilean mine, The Associated Press has reported. Regulations in that country are about 40 years behind those in the United States, said Lexington attorney and former MSHA employee Tony Oppegard.
"I'm sure it's resonating with any miner in Kentucky or anywhere," Oppegard said. "It's a danger that all miners face. Miners are as a general rule a close-knit group."
Oppegard said he hoped the Chilean government and businesses would learn lessons from the collapse that could easily have been fatal. Rescuers in Chile consulted with engineers, doctors and psychologists worldwide.
"After you have a near- disaster, there's no expense spared to rescue these guys," Oppegard said. "Why can't you put sufficient money and resources into the business to prevent something like this?"
The San Esteban mining company, which owns the mine, pursued bankruptcy protection and has claimed it can't afford to pay the trapped miners, AP reported.
"You had guys underground risking their lives in this dog hole that is very similar to some of the dog holes in Eastern Kentucky," Oppegard said.
Shoupe said Wednesday he was remembering his own rescue in 1970 after three tons of rock collapsed as he was operating a roof bolting machine. Seven years later, Congress passed the Mine Safety and Health Act.
Shoupe said he thinks the United Mine Workers union and federal regulations make U.S. mines safer today.
"That's another thing that gets on my mind nowadays," Shoupe said. "This was 40 years ago. It's unfortunate, but it takes blood of coal miners to get rules and regulations passed to keep other miners safer."
Shoupe said Wednesday he was thinking about what the Chilean miners might have to say about safety in the future.
"They're going to be able to talk to people. It's going to be great news for the safety people and stuff," Shoupe said. "They can take this information around the world."