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?Everything normal? during shift before blast killed partner

By Keith Lacey James Plummer?s partner testified she believed ?everything was normal, so normal? the night an accidental blast killed her partner and friend three years ago.
By Keith Lacey

James Plummer?s partner testified she believed ?everything was normal, so normal? the night an accidental blast killed her partner and friend three years ago.

Joanne Muldoon was the key witness at a coroner?s inquest which started Monday into Plummer?s death at Inco?s Copper Cliff South Mine around 1:15 am April 7, 1999.

Muldoon and Plummer were working a 12-hour shift as crusher operators at the 4,000-level of the mine.
The crusher?a massive piece of machinery used to crush large pieces of ore and oxidized muck into smaller pieces?had a huge chunk of ore jammed in its jaws, Muldoon testified.

After trying a water hose and huge hook and crane to try and dislodge the chunk, Plummer made the call to use explosives known in the mining business as ?cone packs? to blast out the chunk so production could continue, said Muldoon, an articulate woman who was reduced to tears on several occasions Monday in recalling the tragic events three years ago.

This was the fifth time during the shift Plummer and Muldoon had to set blasts to free jammed rock. Blasting rock to remove rock jams was a procedure she and Plummer had performed together ?hundreds of times?, Muldoon testified.

Blasting procedure called for all workers on the same level of the mine to clear their work site to safe places before Plummer set the explosive device at the top of the huge chunk, said Muldoon.

Areas are cleared, guards are positioned, the explosive device is set and the person who sets the charge clears the area before using a radio to communicate the all-clear for a blast, said Muldoon.

In their four years as co-workers, Plummer had always set the explosives and she ignited the blast, she said.

?Jim liked to set the explosives...he had been mining for 29 years and he knew what he was doing,? she said. ?No matter where we were blasting, Jimmy set the charge.?

After the area was cleared, Plummer told her over the radio ?it?s O.K. Joe (short for Joanne), which was his normal communication? every time he set a charge and cleared, she testified.

She attached a blasting line to a battery and ?fired the shot?, but knew immediately the blast didn?t fire properly as ?the crusher wasn?t was still screaming.?

When Plummer commented ?it?s O.K. Joe? she reiterated that meant to her the charge was set and he?d cleared the area, said Muldoon.

She sent a radio transmission to Plummer telling him the blast hadn?t gone right and they?d have to try it again, but Plummer didn?t answer, said Muldoon near tears. She grabbed some explosive powder and two more cone packs and went back upstairs towards the crusher and started asking ?Jimmy where are you, where did you go? and again didn?t get an answer, she said.

Thinking he might have gone to a safe area for a cigarette or perhaps fallen between some missing flooring, she continued to look for him, but couldn?t find him, she said.

?It?s very scary when you?re yelling and yelling and no one is answering,? she said.

After continuing her search, she approached the crusher platform and saw Plummer?s mining hat upside down and saw Plummer?s body at a corner of the platform, she said.

She yelled out ?Oh My God, Oh My God, I need help? on her radio, two co-workers rushed to the scene and took her away, she said.

?Everything was so normal, I didn?t know anything was wrong,? she said.

Muldoon admitted there was a friendly competition among crushing crews and other operators to produce the most ore at South mine.

She and Plummer were the reigning champions for the previous three months and this made Plummer proud as he was the only crusher operator with a female partner, she said.

The competition was commonly referred to ?as the mucking Olympics in South mine? and she felt it could lead to unsafe working practices even though she and Plummer never cut corners on safety, Muldoon testified.

When asked how a similar tragedy could be prevented, Muldoon agreed only the operator who sets an explosive charge should clear an area and fire the shot.

?If Jim Plummer had to fire his own shot we wouldn?t be here today,? she said. ?I think there should be something in prevent a similar accident from happening again.

?It only makes sense that if you are the one wiring it up (explosive charge), you should be the one letting it go.?

Muldoon said there was no written procedure for blasting at South Mine, but suddenly she was called to a meeting and shown a written procedure four days after Plummer was killed.

Another problem underground is radio chatter is common and the only way a person sending a message knows if it has been received is if the person on the other line acknowledges they had received it, she said.

At times, Plummer ?wasn?t as forthcoming on the radio? as he should have been and often didn?t use last names as was procedure, she said.

Muldoon also said working 12-hours shifts underground ?was brutal? and often led to exhaustion during extremely hectic shifts.

?It?s extremely exist...12 hours on surface just isn?t the same as 12 hours underground,? she said.

She and Plummer were not only co-workers, but good friends and his death has devastated her, said Muldoon.

?To say I?m still in shock would be an understatement,? she said, as many hardened miners attending the inquestcould be seen near tears.

Jason Patterson, who was working the same shift, testified the scenario described by Muldoon went down exactly as she said.

He was standing less than three feet from Muldoon in a safe area when he heard Plummer say on his radio ?it?s O.K. Joe? before she ignited the blast.

When asked if he too believed Plummer was in the clear, Patterson said ?definitely?.

Last October, Inco abandoned its appeal of a $500,000 fome imposed in the Plummer case after being found guilty in late June of two counts under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Justice Louise Serre found Inco guilty of two of three counts it was facing and found South Mine supervisor Roy Roque guilty of both counts he was facing in Plummer?s death. Roque was fined $10,000.

The coroner?s inquest is expected to wrap up Thursday or Friday.