Livingston Co. mine rescue teams train for disaster and competition

Salt caverns at American Rock Salt where mine rescue teams train to handle fires and other emergencies. (Provided photo)

1200 feet underground, deep inside salt caverns formed 400 million years ago.

"The mine is just a series of tunnels. You can't see this far (inches) in front of your face," said Joe Farruggia, who has been on American Rock Salt's mine rescue team for 12 years. "You can get really turned around and not know which way is up and which way is down."

His team goes in - when others are evacuated out. Most of the emergencies involve fire.

"Your first priority when you enter the mine is to rescue any survivors. Your second priority is to get in there and put out a fire or seal the fire off," said Team Captain Patrick Moore.

While underground, they breath regenerated oxygen created in a 34 pound device strapped to their backs. "It basically takes the carbon dioxide out of your breath and transforms it back to oxygen," said Farruggia. He said that allows a tank of oxygen smaller than a two-liter bottle of soda to last four hours. "This is not the kind of tank you take diving into Conesus Lake," he jokes.

On Thursday, this small group of first-responders ran through drills on the grass in front of the large feeder towers and piles of rock salt. Staked in the ground are poles connected with rope to form a grid. The channels simulate underground tunnels inside the salt caverns.

The team puts on the oxygen masks and steps into the first of the tunnels - feeling the walls and ceiling and floors as they go along. They work slowly and evenly overlapping the space. "The only way you have to know where you're going is to feel - the roof the ribs the sides, then advance," said Moore. They're looking for fire - equipment- and people.

In another of the simulated tunnels, the clearance is very low. Before crawling through, the leader makes two short blasts on a horn. Two is the signal for advance, one is stop, three is retreat. Four blasts occur when a team member is in trouble. The team is also tethered together with a black cord. "That is your communications and your life line," said Moore. The cord connects microphones inside the headsets they wear and allows communication with the "fresh air base" outside.

In another tunnel, they encounter a victim. "He has a broken right leg. He unconscious and he's breathing.," said Moore after performing a physical analysis. They transport him by gurney to safety.

"If someone was trapped and we couldn't get to them, that's what these guys are trained to do," said mine health and safety manager Joe Bucci. "If there ever was an incident, I know that these guys would be able to handle it."

This week, the team heads to national competition in Kentucky, where they will match their skills against 44 other teams from across the country. "When they come back here they will be better prepared to take on any sort of emergency they might come across," said Bucci.

American Rock Salt's two rescue teams "Pride" and "Patriot" train every month. Though rare they have seen action inside the mine. "We've had three fires here since I've been on the mine rescue team. No one has gotten hurt in any of those,' said Farruggia.

"The captain, he's only as good as the guys behind him," said Moore. "You've got to know that they have your back in a situation like this."

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