FRESHEST AIR IN THE WORLD
THE "freshest air you'll ever get” can shatter rubber and turn flowers into cornflakes.
But it is also a lifeline between Ilkeston's Mines Rescue team and the trapped victims of a pit disaster.
The "lifesaver" is liquid oxygen, which, though extremely cold, can keep a man going in a fume-filled tunnel for up to two hours. Strapped to a man's back in the form of breathing apparatus, the oxygen evaporates to give off, what Ilkeston Superintendent Crispian Hodgkiss called the freshest air in the world.
But to prove there is a lighter side to even a very serious operation, Brigadesman John Mapletoft showed me how to "play" with the stuff — cold enough to leave you with burns.
An old tin can half filled with the liquid converts flexible rubber into something like a pot drain, shattering into next to nothing under a hammer. It can also make flowers "crunchy", although John had no flowers to demonstrate at the time.
Mine rescuing is a serious operation working to a strict timetable and tiptop efficiency.
All the Ilkeston rescuers live "on the job" in houses dotted around the station, which works alongside stations at Mansfield, Chesterfield and Ashby.
To qualify, a rescue man needs experience in the mining industry, good health and what must surely be dedication. On call for 24 hours every day of the year the ten-man team at Ilkeston lives, works and plays together, and Mr Hodgkiss agreed when I suggested it worked on similar lines to a "commune".
Every house around the station is fitted with an alarm, and Mr Hodgkiss reckoned his lads could get to a mine six miles away in 13 minutes, fully kitted out and ready to start.
Training is intensive, with regular health check-ups and constant drilling until the men know the procedures and operations like the back of their hand.
Ilkeston is well off as far as training facilities go. A maze of underground tunnels provides an ideal setting for simulated rescue work, often visited by teams from other rescue stations.
Fitted out with boots, a belt-battery and helmet, John led me down past the heavy green doors leading into the tunnels. It had been raining and water ran down slopes to collect in puddles, usually where the tunnel roof was lowest.
But I was told to expect “cissy" conditions, although I found it difficult to agree. Water, mud, stale air and the dark was bad enough, but John said that for training purposes, the tunnels were filled with smoke by lighting a fire at one of the openings.
P Straw and Charlie Snarski with breathing apparatus at Ilkeston Mine Rescue Station
Add to that the fact that each man has to carry about 30lbs. of breathing apparatus and heavy, wooden dummies, I suppose the conditions I experienced were a bit weak.
Crouched down with my knees pressed against my chest, the exit, was a welcome site, although it felt strange to be able to stand up after ten minutes in a usually less than three feet high tunnel.
Fortunately, the National Coal Board's accident prevention schemes are paying off and Mr Hodgkiss said the number of emergencies was getting less and less.
Dust control arid methane gas drainage all add to the safety of the mines, but no matter what precautions are taken there is always the chance of an accident.
So the mines rescue net-work, built up from 26 stations all over the country, goes on. Ilkeston has three vehicles, one which always arrives at the scene first fully equipped with stretchers, breathing apparatus and first aid facilities.
The fleet works in a 15-mile radius of the station and, by law, can go no. further. Collieries covered by the team include Cotgrave, Moorgreen, Gedling and Pyehill, where part-time rescuers are always at hand.
The Derbyshire vehicles are linked by VHF radio transmitters and receivers to the stations. Whenever one station is called out, the nearest other station attends as well.
The system has improved a great deal since the outset about 55 years ago, with vehicles with solid tyres. Funds were provided by the Midland Coal Owners' Association before it was nationalised, and Chesterfield's station is built on the same plan as our own.