Leo Sanchez has worked at the Turquoise Ridge mine for 11 years, but he won't soon forget the night of February 3, 2016. The shift started like any other. Sanchez, North Zone Supervisor at the Nevada-based underground mine, was reviewing survey maps with John Conklin, South Zone Supervisor. At 10:30 p.m., Sanchez's radio sounded. It was Jonathon Long.
"I need you guys down here," Sanchez recalls Long saying in a calm but urgent voice.
It was highly unusual to request both supervisors so Sanchez knew immediately something wasn't right. When he arrived in Zone 4, the area in the north zone where Long was working with colleagues Gerald Hinz and David Reed, he understood why. A rock failure had occurred. The three miners were unhurt but partially cut off by more than 30 tons of downed rock. The ventilation system was damaged but still functional.
"The quality of a leader’s character is only truly apparent when required to make the right decision under pressure."
(From left to right): Cody Watson, Sylvester Rodriguez, Gilbert Dozal, Jose Lomeli, Zane Bishop, Josh Sinclair, David Reed, Lenny Vankirk, Leo Sanchez, Roy Escobar, and Jonathon Long. (Not pictured: Gerald Hinz, John Conklin, Zach Nipper, and Jeff Martin)
Sanchez and Conklin quickly but calmly assessed the situation to determine how best to safely extract the men. They helped guide Hinz around the failure area, but more rock began to fall soon after. All told, approximately 90 tons of rock would fall from the tunnel walls that night.
After the failure intensified, Sanchez and Conklin knew the tunnel would need to be stabilized before Long and Reed could be extracted. Sanchez—one of 15 men recently recognized for their role in the rescue operation—instructed Long and Reed to retreat a safe distance from the point of failure until the area could be secured.
"They respected the decision," Sanchez says. "They were really calm about it. They just said, 'Fair enough boss, we'll wait for your call.'"
As North Zone Supervisor, Sanchez was in charge of the rescue effort. One of his first acts was to throw a gas monitor to Long and Reed who were standing about 60 feet away, well back of the failure area. This allowed the trapped miners to monitor levels of potentially dangerous gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen.
Sanchez then called Jon Laird, Mine Operations Superintendent at Turquoise Ridge, and informed him that he had put the mine on stand down, an emergency protocol that halts operations and clears radio traffic so instructions and updates can be provided. Laird notified mine General Manager, Nigel Bain, as well as other senior leaders at the mine. He also ensured that the relevant regulatory authorities were notified immediately about the incident, and he put the mine's safety and rescue team on standby.
Sanchez, meanwhile, radioed Zane Bishop, North Zone Development Leader, and asked him to serve as liaison to the rest of the mine and ensure the stand down was being fully implemented. Then he began mobilizing resources. He would need a bolter rig to install steel bolts to stabilize the tunnel walls. He would need electricians to de-energize downed power cables and re-establish power when new utilities equipment arrived. And he would need wire meshing and a cement-like substance known as shotcrete to reinforce the integrity of the damaged tunnel.
Lenny Vankirk and Cody Watson, who work on the mine's supply or "nipper" crew, arrived within minutes of receiving Sanchez's call. So did Josh Sinclair, who was operating a bolter rig in a nearby tunnel. The men quickly set to work, Vankirk and Watson unloading supplies, and Sinclair doing the bolting.
Bolter rigs at Turquoise Ridge can run on diesel or electric power. With electricity down in the failure area, Sanchez ordered bolting to begin immediately using diesel power.
"Leo made a very smart decision to use diesel because it expedited the rescue, but he knew he had to be careful," says Jon Laird, who wasn't on shift that night but drove 1.5 hours from his home in Winnemucca, Nevada, to support the rescue team.
The concern with diesel was that it could cause a build-up of poisonous gases in the failure area where ventilation was limited. To eliminate this risk, utilities were restored as quickly as possible so the bolter rig could operate under electric power.
Sylvester Rodriguez and Jose Lomelli provided the piping and power cables needed to reestablish utilities. Electricians Zach Nipper and Jeff Martin de-energized damaged power feeds and restored power with the new utility equipment. Gilbert Dozal rushed to the area with a back-up bolter rig and stayed to assist Rodriguez and Lomelli with utilities installation.
Sanchez had voice and radio contact with Long and Reed throughout the four-hour rescue. He provided them with regular updates and ensured they remained calm—while doing his best to maintain a calm air himself. Sanchez says he's been through some tough situations during his 14 years in mining, but nothing quite like this.
"I was pretty damn nervous to tell you the truth," he says. "I was concerned for the well-being of my men and, while I never doubted we'd get them out, I just wanted that bolt work to get done as quickly as possible."
Roy Escobar was the lead bolter and performed remarkably under the most intense kind of pressure. Working non-stop for 2.5 hours amidst piles of downed rock, tattered wire meshing and broken utility equipment, he didn't damage a single roof bolt or break a single hydraulic hose, which would have slowed the rescue.
"He worked just about as fast as anyone could," Laird says. "He really didn't miss a beat."
Escobar, Sanchez, and all of the individuals involved in the rescue effort, including Hinz, Long and Reed, recently received leadership awards from Barrick Chief Operating Officer Richard Williams. Williams personally presented the awards to a number of the men at a ceremony held at Turquoise Ridge on April 12.
"The quality of a leader's character is only truly apparent when required to make the right decision under pressure," Williams says. "I was delighted and impressed by the quality of the decisions made during this incident by everyone involved, and it gave me great pleasure to present special awards to those leaders who did so well, kept everyone safe, and returned the mine to full operating capacity as quickly as possible."
Turquoise Ridge General Manager Nigel Bain was equally impressed with his people.
"For me, a key takeaway from the incident was the recognition of the miners to stay safe sheltering under existing ground support and await rescue rather than expose themselves to greater risk," he says. "I felt proud and assured that the formal and informal leaders of the mine dealt with the issue in an urgent but safe manner, working quickly but carefully to re-support the area of ground failure to rescue their colleagues."
The rescue ended successfully at 2:30 a.m. on February 4 when Reed and Long passed safely through the stabilized area. The area has since been fully repaired and reinforced, and the mine has stepped up inspections, particularly in areas where tunnels have been in place for long periods of time.
While Sanchez hopes he never has to lead another rescue operation, he says he was thankful to have John Conklin at his side that night, and that he couldn't be prouder of all of his Turquoise Ridge colleagues.
"I couldn't have asked for it to go any smoother at all and I'd just like to thank the whole crew for that."