ITHACA, NY – On Wednesday, 17 miners found themselves trapped nearly 1,000 feet below the surface when the elevator they used to descend into the Cargill salt mine got stuck.

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As of approximately 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, all of the miners have been rescued.

For the full story of the rescue: All miners at Cargill have been rescued after scare

To provide some background on these events, here’s an overview of what we know about the Cayuga Salt Mine and the harrowing situation that unfolded through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.

A brief background of the Cayuga Salt Mine

The Cayuga Salt Mine has been in operation for nearly 100 years. First dug out in 1915, the mine was shut down briefly due to poor production in 1918. In 1921, the mine was dug down to 2,000 feet, where a 99 percent pure vein of salt was located, according to Cargill’s information site about the mine.

The mine operated under the name Cayuga Rock Salt Company until it was bought out by the Cargill conglomerate in 1970. According to the site, Cargill modernized the facility with new infrastructure and drilled a third shaft from the 2,300 foot level to the top – the first time a shaft of that size had been drilled bottom to top.

According to a 2003 New York Times report, the Cargill mine is America’s deepest salt mine. It pulls eight tons of salt from mas the earth every minute and loads up to 70 tractor-trailers per hour.

Salt produced at the mine is mostly used for deicing – mostly of roads, some for residential purposes. The salt deposits are slated to last another 50 years, according to the report.

“Visiting the Cargill mine is like a journey to another planet,” the report says. “As crews blast and haul away millions of tons of salt each year, the subaqueous mine has expanded underground, chamber by chamber, under the center of Cayuga Lake.”

The mine employees around 200 workers, many of them production miners.

(Photo: NYS DEC)

Who are the miners?

No official details have been released regarding the identities of the 17 men who were trapped on the mine elevator.

Mine manager Shawn Wilczynski said that the men varied in age and experience level. The youngest was in his 20s, while the oldest was in his 60s. The least experienced member had only worked in the mine for a couple of months, while one was a 40-year veteran of the trade.

It was reported that the miners are all in good physical health and relatively good spirits, given the circumstances. Wilczynski said the men huddled close together for warmth during the time they were trapped, swapping stories and jokes to keep their morale up.

The last set of the 17 Cargill salt miners emerge Thursday morning after being rescued from an elevator stuck 900 feet below the surface. A rescue rescue cage lowered from a crane to bring them up four at a time. (Simon Wheeler/Pool/The Ithaca Journal)

How did the miners become trapped?

At approximately 10 p.m. on Thursday, the mine’s third shift workers were getting ready to start. Five minutes earlier, the second shift crew had ridden the elevator to the top with no incident nor any sign or sound of a problem.

However,  as the 17 miners on the third shift crew rode the elevator down the shaft, an as-yet-undetermined system failure caused the elevator to become stuck at around 900 feet below ground.

The precise details of the failure remain unclear. Mine manager Shawn Wilczynski said that it was believed to be mechanical nature. The current theory is that is that on one of the site’s vertical beams, a guide broke lose and came out of the shaft, preventing the elevator from moving downward.

The cage that was lowered into the mine shaft using a crane to rescue miners stuck in an elevator 900 feet below the surface at the Cargill salt mine in Lansing. (Simon Wheeler/Pool/The Ithaca Journal)

The rescue effort

Miners were able to contact mine personnel on the surface and stayed in contact with them throughout the ordeal. After a 9-1-1 call was placed at around 11:40 p.m., a total of fifteen agencies responded to the situation, starting with Lansing Fire Department and including Tompkins’ Sheriff Department, Ithaca Fire Department, Cayuga Heights Fire Department, and others.

However, there was only so much that the responders could do to help the men trapped so far below the surface. Using duffel bags lowered on messenger cables, rescue workers delivered gloves, hats, blankets and heating pads to help keep the miners warm.

Ultimately, a crane capable of reaching the 900-foot depth was needed. After a few calls were made, Auburn Crane and Rigging provided a crane that could do the job and someone to operate it.

A basket was attached to the crane and a rescue worker descended into the mine to help load the miners up, two or three at a time. The rescue process took about 10 to 15 minutes per trip, and all the men were rescued over the course of about an hour and a half. Rescuers prioritized who to bring up first based on the relative age, health and personal circumstances of the individual miners.

Mine officials were able to contact some of the miner’s families, though none of them were allowed on the scene.

(Photo: Ithaca Fire Department)

Past and future safety

Wilczynski said that accidents like these were extremely rare – he had not seen one in his 18 years in the mining industry.

The Cayuga Rock Salt Mine had been accident free for roughly 5 years before this incident. The last accident occurred in March of 2010, when a salt bin collapsed on a truck, killing the driver.

Wilczynski said that the mine won the Centennial of Safety Award in 2011 and 2013 for the safest large underground nonmetal mine in the country, presented by the National Mine Association and Mine Safety Administration.

According to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Cargill has reported 21 problems with the hoists (the term for elevators and other vertical conveyors) at the mine since 2013.

Cargill has reported 21 problems with hoists at the Cayuga salt mine since the start of 2013, according to data compiled and made available online by MSHA. Most of them involved electrical problems that interrupted power to the hoist. By comparison, New York’s other active salt mine only made four reports in that timeframe.

According to a report from the Ithaca Journal, elevators have gone down numerous times while miners were at work. When such a problem occurs, miners must evacuate the mine through a second exit point.

They were forced to evacuate the mine five times in 2014 and five times in 2013 after one of the elevators failed, according to the Journal.

Wilczynski was very clear that the company will be taking its time to fully examine the situation and determine what actions need to take place, up to possibly replacing the elevator. He said the mine will reopen sometime next week at the absolute earliest, and noted that the mine has a sufficient stockpile that they aren’t under pressure to resume operation.

“We need to take our time,” he said, “this is not an incident or something we want to look at lightly.”

In a statement, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had ordered a state investigation into the incident. An excerpt from the statement is below:

I have directed a team of inspectors from the Office of Emergency Management, Office of Fire Protection, and the Department of Labor’s Division of Safety and Health to the site to do a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding last night’s incident. The health and safety of New York’s workforce is paramount and every step will be taken to ensure this incident is not repeated in the future, and anyone potentially at fault is held accountable.

On behalf of all New Yorkers, I want to thank the dedicated first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to ensure the safe return of these miners. This is the perfect example of New Yorkers coming together in times of need, and I am grateful for the efforts of all those involved in this operation.

Miners from the second last group to removed from a stuck elevator at the Cargill salt mine in Lansing are given blankets after spending the night trapped in an elevator 900 feet below the surface. (Simon Wheeler/Pool/The Ithaca Journal)

Community responses

Ed LaVigne, recently elected town supervisor of Lansing, said he received word of the situation at around 2:30 a.m., but with emergency crews already on scene, he was assured the situation was in hand.

LaVigne said he that, like anyone in the community, he felt deep concern when he heard about the crisis and elation when the crisis was resolved without any injuries, saying he was “extremely relieved that the families have their love ones home and safe.”

He said that he was impressed with the way that mine officials and emergency responders handled the situation. He gave particular commendation to mine manager Shawn Wilczynski, who he said “provided clarity when there could’ve been chaos” in the early, uncertain hours of the incident.

LaVigne said that he had worked with both laborers and management staff from Carhill in the course of volunteer work with Lansing Community Council, saying they had been “very gracious to help many aspects of the Lansing community,” including a project to restore Myers Park playground.

LaVigne said he also worked with many from the Lansing fire department and other local departments. “We’re very blessed to have people give their time energy and effort,” he said. “This is about community, and a community is strongest when everyone contributes.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.