Faces – Norton Pickett
August 5, 2002
As the drama unfolded in Somerset, Pa., where nine miners were trapped underground for three days, Carson City resident Norton Pickett watched with special interest.
Only those who have ventured into the depths of the earth can understand the satisfaction felt by Pickett when, one by one, all nine Pennsylvania miners were pulled back to the surface alive.
A miner himself, Pickett worked for more than 48 years to improve mine safety in Nevada and the United States. He retired in 1995 as the chief administrative officer in Nevada for mine safety and training.
Since retirement, Pickett spends much of his time restoring antique cars. In the garage of the north Carson home he shares with his wife, Vivian, a fully restored ’23 Model T Roadster is parked ready to go while a ’57 Ranchero pickup awaits a few more touches before its road ready.
In between tinkering and sanding, Pickett continues to keep a close eye on the mining industry.
Pickett first ventured into mining at the age of 14 in Durango, Colo., where his father worked as a miner. Pickett and his older brother earned pocket change by mining leftover coal deposits in closed mines, then selling their gleanings in town.
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He moved with his family to Nevada where Pickett began his first official mining job at the Standard Mine in Winnemucca.
“I went to work there and I’ve been in mining since in one form another,” said Pickett, his gentle blue eyes reflecting satisfaction with a career that improved conditions for workers in a dangerous industry. “I still do (mine safety) consulting occasionally.”
His interest in mine safety developed with an up-close experience of the dangers of mining. Pickett’s father was caught in a conveyor that crushed his chest. He lingered for two months before succumbing to the injuries.
“I wondered why so many miners were killed and injured from just doing their job,” he said. “I could never accept the fact that people could go to work for the day and not go home at the end of the day in the same condition.
“As a foreman and supervisor in mines I was, maybe, overly cognizant of that fact, making sure people under me new about safety procedures.”
Pickett was twice recognized with the industry’s Key Man award for five years without a crew injury.
In 1975, Pickett was selected to be part of the newly created Nevada Industrial Commission as a mine safety inspector. In 1982 he was appointed administrator of the Division of Mine Inspection
Before that time, safety measures were considered recommendations, not mandatory and mine inspectors were elected, he said.
Among Pickett’s accomplishments was the establishment of an industrial hygiene laboratory that monitors atmospheric conditions in mines.
“Safety goes hand in hand with health,” he said. “Safety is immediate. Health takes years before a miner is affected.”
Training for miners and owners has also advanced since Pickett first rode down a mine shaft. Pickett was instrumental in developing training programs and videos for miners and the policies and procedures of rescue response.
“Now there are regulations that require that, especially at underground mines, teams are ready for a rescue and there is rescue equipment on site,” Pickett said.
In addition, by federal law, a second team must be readily available and mines must have supplies to support two teams working on a rescue.
Due to his work and leadership with Mine Inspectors Institute of America and the National Association of State Mine Inspection Agencies, Pickett is familiar with mining around the country, including Pennsylvania mining.
“I’m somewhat familiar with how things are done in Pennsylvania,” he said of that state’s mining safety procedures that went to work for the nine trapped coal miners.
Because East Coast mining is mostly coal, which is measured in tons, and Nevada mines are mostly gold and silver, which is measured in ounces, there are many differences in the industries. But when there’s an accident deep underground, the rescue operations are similar.
In the case of the Pennsylvania mining accident, the biggest cause of the sudden flooding that collapsed the shaft was an erroneous map of a neighboring, abandoned mine.
“Mine maps are important,” Pickett said. “They give the miners data that they need and follow extensively day to day. Federal regulations require maps to be up to date. Even on closed mines. Any time an operating mine is working in the vicinity of an abandoned mine, the abandoned mine maps must be made available.
“Apparently, the last activity from that (abandoned) mine had not even been recorded,” he said.
The Pennsylvania miners inadvertently penetrated a flooded shaft of the abandoned mine that was 300 feet closer than the map indicated. Water rushed in, collapsing their access shaft and flooding the area where the miners were stranded.
Usually a small hole is driven 20 feet ahead of where miners are working. If there is a water source ahead of them, it makes it presence known with a trickle rather than a gush.
Why an advance hole was not drilled, or if it was, why it didn’t warn the miners of the danger, Pickett couldn’t answer.
He did offer insights into some of the things that contributed to the successful rescue.
“There’s (now) an established program that if there’s an incident involving trapped miners, there are procedures that miners are trained to follow, to help pinpoint location and to communicate.
“Tapping is part of it,” he said regarding the tapping the rescuers heard and clung to as a sign of hope throughout the ordeal. “It’s a return signal from the miners responding to an initial signal from the surface — a small explosion. That lets the miners know (rescuers) are there and asks for a response. The tapping (in response) is usually done with some type of steel rod that will reach the mine roof. They tap the mine roof, in what used to be called Morris Code.”
Part of the equipment that must be available for emergencies is a drill that will bore a hole large enough for a man to be pulled through to safety.
The Pennsylvania miners also had an advantage in that the shift had just changed so their location in the mine was known.
“There’s been great strides in mine safety,” Pickett said. “Unfortunately, there’s still room for more. I’m sure more will be initiated as situations demand. Unfortunately, it takes an accident or incident to initiate action.
“There are so many unforeseen conditions.”