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Tech Personnel Assist With Mine Fatality Recovery

MAGDALENA, N.M. Sept. 2, 2009 – New Mexico State Mine Inspector Terence Foreback and his staff assisted with the recovery of an abandoned mine accident victim near Magdalena on August 28.

Foreback, whose office is under the auspices of New Mexico Tech, received a call August 27 from the Magdalena Marshall Larry Cearley, requesting assistance with a possible abandoned mine land, or AML, accident south of the town of Magdalena. 

Associate State Mine Inspector Chris Hefner (left) oversees the recovery effort at the Iron Mask Mine on Friday, Aug. 28. Photo by Steve Mills/Chevron Mining Inc.

A Magdalena resident, David E. Heiss, had been reported missing and Marshall Cearley feared he had fallen into a mine shaft at the old Iron Mask Mine.

On August 26, an acquaintance of Heiss who owns property in the area reported that he had come across Heiss' truck stuck in an arroyo near the mine. When the man went to take a closer look, he saw a makeshift shelter built over the vertical mine shaft, along with a bedroll, sleeping bag and other personal belongings, but no sign of Heiss.

Marshall Cearley returned to the site later that day, with Steve Carter of the New Mexico State Police. Cearley said they found no signs that Heiss had been at the site in recent days. They found spider webs on the truck and evidence of mice raiding the food supply.

"At that point we contacted the Bureau of Mine Safety at New Mexico Tech to begin a coordinated search of the shaft," Cearley said. "We need to recognize those people. They really know what they're doing."

Foreback first contacted Robert Eveleth, senior mining engineer with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech to obtain the history of the mine to ascertain what conditions could be expected.

Then, Foreback assembled experts for the purpose of examining the old shaft at the Iron Mask Mine to determine if Mr. Heiss had suffered an accident. Mine rescue personnel from several organizations were contacted for assistance: Chevron Mining Inc.’s Questa Mine, Carlsbad Waste Isolation Pilot Project, AML personnel from the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division AML Bureau in Santa Fe and search and rescue personnel from the National Park Service. These groups converged at the site Thursday, Aug. 27, and made preparations to begin exploring the mine shaft the following morning.

Dr. Scott Altenbach (right) of the University of New Mexico adjusts a hoist as a State Police dive team officer prepares to descend the Iron Mask Mine south of Magdalena on Friday, Aug. 28. Photo by Steve Mills/Chevron Mining Inc.

“The University of New Mexico owns a pickup truck with a hoist and cage that Dr. Scott Altenbach, bat biologist, uses to enter abandoned mine shafts for the purpose of internal mine bat surveys,” Foreback said. “Dr. Altenbach agreed to offer use of this truck for the search and possible recovery effort.”

Associate State Mine Inspector Chris Hefner was on site at 6 a.m. Friday, Aug. 28, to oversee the safety of the search and recovery operation. 

“We lowered a National Park Service Search and Rescue member down into the mine in the basket of Dr. Altenbach’s hoist. He found the body about 65 feet down floating in water," Hefner said. "A haz-mat team had to be called in, because of the biological hazard and gasses that may have been present at the bottom of the mine, and we contacted the State Police dive team.”

The dive team arrived on site Friday and recovered Mr. Heiss late in the afternoon. 

“This was a very successful operation” said Hefner. “The cooperation between state and federal agencies, state and local law enforcement and private industry was remarkable. We hope to never have a rescue situation in the future, but we will be much better prepared if we do.”

The Iron Mask Mine was last operated in the 1930’s as a silver and copper operation and is on patented claims. The Iron Mask Mine is one of what could be hundreds of old mines in the Magdalena Mountains that haven't been sealed off after they were abandoned. 

“This tragedy emphasizes the dangers involved in exploring old mine workings,” Foreback said. “The best practice is the stay-out-and-stay-alive when dealing with these situations.”

The Bureau of Mine Safety, under the direction of the State Mine Inspector Terence Foreback, is dedicated to promoting safe practice and physical well-being among miners, contractors and other persons associated with operating mines. The Bureau is a research and public service project of New Mexico Tech.

– NMT –