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Finest Hour

By Randy Logsdon

The scene is Mission Control; NASA. The room can be characterized as organized chaos. In a side conversation, two NASA officials (one, the NASA director) are discussing the dim prospects of successful reentry and recovery of the Apollo 13 astronauts. It’s not promising. The scene is from the 1995 movie Apollo 13.

Following an explosion, the three astronauts have circled the moon, and are preparing to enter earth’s atmosphere. Over a period of days, they’ve dealt with freezing temperatures, manual course adjustments, illness, contaminated air, low power levels, and a host of emotional issues. Now there is concern that the parachutes may be frozen, the trajectory may be wrong, the heat shields may be damaged, and a typhoon may obstruct the recovery in the Pacific Ocean – all conditions that could prove fatal to the Apollo 13 crew.

Mission Commander Gene Kranz overhears the NASA director. “I know all of the problems. This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.” Dramatically, Kranz turns to the director and clearly responds; “With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” Silence.

I don’t know if Gene Kranz actually uttered those exact words on April 17, 1970, but as events transpired over the next few minutes, those words rang true. Neither the astronauts, the scientists, the engineers, nor the technicians were trained or prepared for the problems that Apollo 13 encountered. But, together, with thousands of individuals focused on one goal ­– to bring Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert home safely, they did make it NASA’s finest hour.

The mining industry has a well-documented history of disasters. Unfortunately, we’ve not experienced the reversal of fortune that Apollo 13 experienced in very many of those occurrences. We can look back to Que Creek (2002), Esterhazy (2006), and San Jose Chile (2010) as success stories – in may respects, our finest hours. Regretfully, there have been many dark hours through that period too.

Preparation and Training

Nothing can substitute for preparation and training in response to a major disaster, or even a less dramatic (meaning that it doesn’t catch the eye of the world press) crisis.

Consider what could happen, even in an aggregates operation:

  • Do you have the resources to extricate a trapped employee in an overturned haul truck?
  • What about someone caught in a conveyor?
  • Suppose someone suddenly collapsed in a control room? How would that person be carried to the ambulance waiting at ground level?
  • How would someone trapped in a surge tunnel be extricated? Is there is a plan? Is the plan known?
  • Has the plan been practiced?
  • Are critical tools and equipment readily available?
  • Are community EMS resources in the loop?

In all fairness, I don’t know if we can be prepared for every possible scenario. But, we can learn some principles from these successes – principles that paved the way for each of these “finest hours.” First – inspirational leadership is essential. Don’t confuse this with crisis management. Leadership brings out the best in each group and individual in a crisis, and leads to the second – a true team effort, selfless and focused on a clearly defined goal.

Setting a Defined Goal

Returning to the Apollo 13 scenario as an example, after the explosion, Gene Kranz immediately defined the new goal. He organized his staff and outside resources to identify the problems and potential problems and to develop real solutions to those problems. He kept them focused and pushed their creative limits. “I don't care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do.”

Even the astronauts contributed. Every individual was focused on the goal of returning the astronauts safely. There was no restriction on ideas. Failure was not an option. Most modifications were tested prior to implementation to ensure that they worked and did not create other problems. In essence, they created their own luck. We work hard to prevent these crisis situations, but we also have to anticipate and prepare for them to occur. Regardless of the scale of the event, preparation and leadership can turn that potential disaster into your finest hour.

Randy K. Logsdon, CMSP, is manager of safety for Intrepid Potash New Mexico operations. He has practiced safety on both the coal and metal/non-metal side of mining for more than 30 years. Randy is a Certified Mine Safety Professional. ­­­He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..