DALTON, Ga. — There's an underground marble mine just south of Ellijay, Ga., that's 950 feet deep.
When a truck caught fire inside the mine in 2010, a trained team of miners extinguished it themselves.
"It went like clockwork," said David Tant, site operations manager for Carmeuse Lime & Stone Inc., which operates that mine, an underground limestone mine in Cisco, Ga., and a processing plant in Chatsworth, Ga.
Miners have to be able to handle their own emergencies, Tant said, because local fire departments generally don't have the equipment or training to help.
"They can't go down there," he said. "There's nothing they can do for you. So you've got to be able to do it for yourself."
8 teams, 4 states
To polish their skills -- and their competitive spirit -- eight rescue teams of miners from Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and New Mexico gathered in Dalton this week for the seventh annual Southeast Regional Mine Rescue Contest. It began Tuesday and ends tonight when the winners will be named.
The competing miners strapped on their gear and worked through mock disasters Wednesday on the floor of a cavernous exhibit hall at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center.
Curtains -- waist-high so the smattering of spectators in bleachers could see -- represented the interiors of two mines. Different scenarios played out, such as a machine on fire with one man dead, two injured and "bad ground" to avoid.
Unlike a firefighter's air pack that holds a 30- to 45-minute supply, each miner wore a "rebreather," a $10,000 device that recirculates the user's breath and adds oxygen so the air supply lasts about four hours.
Mine rescue team members also carried gas meters to detect a lack of oxygen or the presence of explosive gases.
Because cellphones and radios don't work deep underground, team members communicated via telephones linked by a wire that they had to unspool through the mock mine.
Training for the annual competition helps prepare miners for real disasters, said Gary Lewis, who traveled from Carmeuse Black River, an underground limestone mine and lime-manufacturing operation along the Ohio River near Butler, Ky.
"It readies you for the real stuff," said Lewis, who's responded to mine fires, equipment fires and injured miners during his 35 years underground, 30 of which he's served on a mine rescue team.
Miners typically don't get paid extra for being on rescue teams.
"People that do this, it's from the heart, really," said Sam Pierce, district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, whose employees served as the competition's judges.
"They don't do it for money. It's because they care," Pierce said.
None of the miners competing in Dalton were from coal mines, which are in their own category because of things such as the prevalence of explosive methane gas.
The marble from Ellijay and limestone from Cisco are ground up and sold to the carpet industry, which mixes them with latex to make the white backing on residential carpeting and gray backing on industrial carpeting.
"If it's white, it's marble. If it's gray, it was from our limestone mine," Tant said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfree press.com or twitter.com/Tim Omarzu or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.