By DEBRA MCCOWN
Bristol Herald Courier
CEDAR BLUFF, Va. - It was his third day on the job, and "Taz," as he's known in the mines, wasn't sure what it meant to be on a rescue team.
Thirty-nine years later, Danny Quesenberry is still at it, serving now as team captain for a hand-picked group of miners who train year-round to respond to mining disasters.
His team, the Consol Energy Buchanan Black Mine Rescue, is one of 18 in Virginia, and more than 100 nationwide. On several occasions, he and his team have used their skills to save lives and save mines, which, in the coalfields, equal jobs.
"We have gone into temperatures 140-plus degrees, black smoke that you can't see two inches," he said. "Rocks falling all around, you can't see it, you're in a strange place you've never been."
While today's coal mines are statistically safer than highways, there are inherent risks in working deep underground.
In Virginia alone, 18 mine rescue teams - almost all volunteers - train regularly to respond to disasters.
Gerald Kendrick, captain of the 1977 national championship team, is one of several longtime rescuers who now train others.
"They sacrifice a lot to be on a mine rescue team," Kendrick said. "I think most coal miners regard mine rescue teams basically as heroes, and I think they should."
On average, Kendrick said, team members train about 400 hours a year, mostly on their own time. They're required to take a 20-hour training course, attend at least 96 hours of training a year, and participate in two mine rescue competitions.
Leroy Mullins, a trainer for Patriot Mining and Race Mining, said men choose to get involved for a variety of reasons.
"Some want to be involved . because they may have had a family member, father or brother who was on a mine rescue team. They may have had a close acquaintance or a family member who was killed in a disaster, and (want) to be ready to help if anything like that happens in their work career," he said.
"And then it's the drive for knowledge too, and the challenge."
Randy Moore, chief of the Virginia Division of Mines, said mine rescue teams are sent in for three primary reasons: explosion; fire; or inundation, meaning that the mine cuts into old mine works, water or bad air.
In the case of an inundation, he said, the team explores the area wearing their breathing apparatus, to make it safe so regular personnel can return. They might also be called in after a roof fall, he said, or to explore old mines that could be put back into production.
Technology, especially in the past five years, has taken much of the guesswork out of search and rescue, he said. And since the deadly 2006 Sago mine explosion in Upshur County, W.Va., companies have been required to have a rescue team within one hour of their operations. So, many companies now have their own.
Jack Richardson, vice-president of central Appalachian operations for Consol Energy, said the special skills and training are useful on a daily basis as well, helping miners better deal with issues such as explosive gas or roof problems.
"The biggest reason (for joining a mine rescue team) is caring about possibly being able to save someone, to save someone's life," Richardson said. "They really care about each other."
On Friday, the 17 teams tested their skills in the 27th annual Governor's Cup Mine Rescue and Safety Contest, held on an athletic field at Southwest Virginia Community College.
The simulated "mine" was marked by roof bolts stuck in the ground and strung with twine. Wood frames represented cinderblock walls in the crosscuts, and the travel ways were littered with white placards indicating hazards, helpful items and people to be rescued or recovered. It rained for most of the day.
With seven minutes to prepare and consider the problem, they put on their breathing apparatus, tied themselves with a link line and readied their equipment - a fold-up stretcher piled with other items that might be needed.
Then, they had 80 minutes to solve a theoretical problem, which involved navigating a smoke-filled mine to locate five trapped individuals - some alive, some dead.
One member of the six-man team remained in a communications booth; the other five went in, tailed by a similar-sized group of judges, consisting of state and federal mining agency staff.
"These folks will follow them every step of the problem," said Chris Whitt, emergency manager for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, "and there's a checklist a mile long of things they have to do."