In Australia’s opal capital, Andy Shiels goes underground searching for something much more precious than an opal. For 40 years, he has gone looking to save lives underground.
‘Back in the 70s and 80s, it was very wild around here and nobody was very safety conscious back then, so we were losing quite a few miners,’ Mr Shiels recalled. ‘We were probably doing a serious mine rescue job every month or so.’
Mr Shiels’s main focus, in Coober Pedy in South Australia’s far north, has been rescuing those who have struck trouble.
‘There are 2 million 20–30m-deep mine shafts around here,’ he said. ‘The odd miner or tourist would fall in to one of these shafts.’
On innumerable occasions, Mr Shiels has ventured into the town’s subterranean surrounds.
He admits there have been grim emergencies he would rather forget.
The Coober Pedy mine rescue team regularly train to keep their skills up to scratch. (ABC News: Haidarr Jones)
But he knows that, without the town’s mine rescue team, the prospects would be much worse for those trying to strike it rich.
Saving a life the ‘best thing you can do’
Coober Pedy once relied on a relatively ragtag crew of rescuers to keep safe those searching for its iridescent gemstones. But today, that team has morphed into a slick State Emergency Service (SES) squad.
The unit is multipurpose, and often responds to road crashes in SA’s remote far north, including along the Stuart Highway that connects Adelaide to the Northern Territory.
But it is the only SES team in the state qualified to rescue people from opal mines.
For more information, go to www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-03/coober-pedy-mine-rescue-squad-searches-for-life/100730594