Miner being called a hero

Man died trying to save co-worker from carbon monoxide poisoning

Photo by William Woody Watchnewspapers.com—Star Mine Manager Rory Williams is consoled by colleagues and fellow mine officials after addressing the media during a press conference Sunday night at the Ouray City Offices.

Rick Williams is a hero for trying to save the life of fellow Revenue-Virginius Mine worker Nicholas Cappanno in a mine accident Sunday that took both their lives, Cappanno’s brother, Eric Keep, said Monday.

Cappanno, a 34-year-old Montrose resident, was new to the hard-rock mine industry, having worked at the Ouray County mine only a few weeks, Keep said.

He died alongside Williams, his immediate supervisor in the newly reopened silver and gold mine just southwest of Ouray, in an accident that also injured 19 others early Sunday.

“He worked in the gas patch for years, but that would take him away from his family for too long,” said Keep, who also lives in Montrose. “When the new mine opened, it gave him the chance to be closer to home. He was a real family person.”

Cappanno left behind a wife and two sons, ages 5 and 2. His parents, Audrey and Dan Keep, also live in Montrose.

The two men died of exposure to carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless toxic gas, after igniting an intentional “powder-smoke” burn, Keep said.

Such burns are common in mining, used to clear away rock to get at the precious metals buried inside.

“They were trying to get rid of old powder and went back in too soon, and I don’t know if they ignited too much or what,” Keep said. “The burn caused the gas to build up pretty fast and ate up all the oxygen. The other guy (Williams) is a real hero, and I want people to know that. He went in and tried to revive my brother, even giving him his oxygen, but the gas took him, too.”

Ouray County emergency responders and mine manager Rory Williams said the incident, which is still under investigation by federal and state officials, occurred at the start of the day shift early Sunday. Rory Williams, who is not related to the deceased miner, said the mine will remain closed until the investigation is completed.

Williams said the intentional burn was conducted sometime Saturday, but couldn’t say why there still was so much carbon monoxide in the shaft, which was about 8,000 feet into the mine tunnel. The mine is equipped with ventilation shafts.

He said all miners are required to carry gas detectors and re-breathers that contain oxygen.

Keep said he was told the 59-year-old Williams, who lives in Durango, went into the mine after his brother, who recently changed his name to Cappanno, and the 19 other miners followed as part of a rescue attempt.

Most of those miners were treated and released from hospitals in Montrose, Delta and Grand Junction. A handful of others were kept overnight, but were listed in fair to good condition.

“They had to get out of there because the gas was getting to them,” Keep said of the surviving miners. “But Williams stayed behind to help my brother. He’s a hero for doing that.”

The Denver-based company that owns the mine, Star Mine Operations LLC, purchased it in October 2011, upgrading and renovating it until February, when mine activities began. It employs about 90 people.

According to records kept by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, the mine was fined 32 times for various small violations since the company purchased it, paying a total of $7,113 in fines. Those records, however, show that the mine had no pattern of violations, though it was fined for a few minor violations more than once.

None of the violations had anything to do with powder smoke or the way the mine drills for ore.

In the past year, it has had four minor accidents that resulted in no serious injuries or work delays. Still, that rate made it higher than other mines of its size, about 115 percent higher than the national average, according to MSHA.

Keep said he hoped that when the investigation is complete, something is learned about the incident.

“I’m not against mining, not at all,” Keep said. “But I want other mines to learn something from it so no one else has to go through this.”


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