Hundreds of people flocked to the Hazard High School football field last week to participate in or be an audience for the Kentucky River Mine Rescue contest, held annually in Perry County.
Chuck Barton, national judge with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and one of two directors who helped set up the contest this year, said competitions like these have been going on for over 100 years.
“There’s several competitions nationwide. It started in 1911; it’s been going on a long time,” Barton, who competed on a team for 20 years, said.
The competition invites coal companies from as far away as Pennsylvania to enlist their best and brightest miners to create teams to compete. Barton said the competition is split up into different categories, including a pre-shift and bench competition, each of which tests the skills of a single supervisor in getting ready to send miners into the mine, and first aid and rescue competitions, which put teams in a pre-determined mine situation in which the miners have to get out safely without making mistakes.
Barton said this year he came up with the course, which is mapped out with orange cones and papers taped to the ground announcing what the miners are coming up against next as they make their way through the course.
“They train for it all year, especially this year, we have a national competition this year,” Barton added.
Barton said for many miners, this is not only a competition, but in some cases it can make a difference in life or death situations underground.
“They don’t look at this as just a competition; it’s a training that they’re going to use when they get on the job if something does go wrong. Fires, explosions, any kind of disasters underground. They’ll know how to handle it,” he said.
And although most miners at the competition see this training as more than just something to win, Barton said the number of teams competing this year has dropped by half since last year.
“Coal’s down so competition’s down. This year we’ve got 22 teams, last year we had almost 40 here,” Barton said.
Equipment alone for the competition, which includes re-breathing packs which hold four hours’ worth of pure medical oxygen for each member of the team, can cost upwards of $500,000, Barton said. The cost of keeping the teams prepared for competition coupled with the steady decline in coal production and employment over the last year has kept many companies from participating this year — and some companies that competed last year have went under since then.
“Used to, in Eastern Kentucky, like back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was on a team before I came with MSHA there was probably five or six competitions right here in Eastern Kentucky,” Barton said.
Still, Barton said those competing have high spirits and crave hearing their team’s name called to place first, second, or third in their competition.
“Most team members train after work, and they don’t get paid for that, they do that on their own. Whoever’s on these teams is going to end up being your supervisors and your foremen,” Barton said. “I mean they’re kind of a dedicated group. They want to win.”