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72 Canada miners safe after fire

Refuge rooms seen as primary factor

TORONTO -- Seventy-two Canadian potash miners walked away yesterday from an underground fire and toxic smoke after spending a night locked inside airtight chambers packed with enough oxygen, food, and water for several days.

The company said the textbook case of safe underground mining was due to those chambers, extensive training of rescue workers, and support from the rural community.

''I'm almost getting choked up thinking about how well this team worked together," Marshall Hamilton, a spokesman for Mosaic Co., the Minneapolis-based owner of the mine, said after he got word that all the men were evacuated safely.

Greg Harris, one of the miners, said he was never concerned about his safety as he played checkers with colleagues in the refuge room waiting to be rescued. They drew the checkerboard on the back of a map and used washers as chips.

''Everything is good," Harris told The Canadian Press from his home. ''Communication was excellent. We had no problems whatsoever."

Analysts said the rescue could serve as a lesson for the mining industry in the United States, China, and other countries.

''It really looks like a textbook recovery to me" said Davitt McAteer, head of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton.

McAteer is leading the investigation into the deaths of 12 miners earlier this month at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia.

In a telephone interview, McAteer said the safety chambers in the Mosaic mine in Canada's central Saskatchewan province were key to the miners' survival.

''I think that the question of the existence of the chamber that provided oxygen, food, and protection is fundamentally important in any kind of a mine," he said. He acknowledged, however, that potash mines are not nearly as dangerous as those for coal, where an initial explosion can provoke a secondary one 10 times as strong.

There are no safety chambers in US mines, he said, because in the late 1970s, the US government determined there was no material strong enough to withstand the secondary explosion.

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