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‘We just gave’r’: Inside the Totten Mine rescue from a kilometre below the earth

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Danny Taillefer and Jason Leger were in the middle of a first aid refresher course when the phone rang.

Shawn Rideout, the chief rescue officer with Ontario Mine Rescue, was on the other end. There were 39 miners stuck underground at Totten Mine near Sudbury, Ont., after the mine shaft was compromised, he said.

There was another way out: climbing a complex warren of ladders at the Vale-owned mine from about a kilometre underground.

Taillefer and Leger – mine rescue officers with the non-profit who were based in Timmins, Ont.– were told they were needed for a complicated mission, and instructed to bring several hundred kilograms of rope and other gear. Not long after the call on Monday last week, they got in a truck and motored to the mine in Worthington, Ont.

The operation that ensued turned into what Taillefer and Leger called the most stressful event of their lives.

“You just couldn’t control the tears coming out,” Taillefer told The Canadian Press when recalling some of the most intense moments of the mission. “You just walk away, wipe your eyes, get it together and then get back at it.”

Ontario Mine Rescue had been in touch with Vale’s emergency response team since Sunday, Sept. 26, when the workers became stuck underground.

A scoop bucket had dislodged and tumbled down part of the mine shaft, causing major damage, Vale said. The repairs could take weeks, said Ted Hanley, vice-president with Ontario Mine Rescue.

A secondary escape route, required by law in Ontario, would be the miners’ way out.

Taillefer and Leger arrived at the mine around 4:30 p.m. Monday. By that point, part of the 60-person rescue team was already about 564 metres underground, where four miners were in a refuge room.

The team was setting up a series of ropes to go deeper – 960 metres down – where 35 other miners waited, passing the time watching videos on their phones using the mine’s Wi-Fi system.

The rescuers believed able-bodiedminers could climb out without much trouble, harnessed to ropes like mountain climbers. But it was clear four miners in the group farthest below the surface would need significant help, Hanley said.

It took about a day to set up the ropes that would help the miners climb out, the rescuers said. Not long after midnight on Tuesday, the workers gradually began their journey up.

“We just gave’r,” Taillefer, 39, said.

The miners closest to the surface climbed out first, in about three hours. Below them, groups of three miners set out with one rescuer above them and one below.

Meanwhile, Taillefer and other rescuers devised a plan for the final four.

“They had been down there for well over 40 hours at that point, they were all exhausted, and some of these guys just physically couldn’t climb a ladder due to old injuries or ailments,” said Taillefer.

With no electricity and only light from their headlamps, the rescuers used the rope system – and a lot of muscle – to pull three of the final four up about 61 metres.

It became clear they needed a better way, Taillefer said.

The crew then employed an AZTEK pulley system, which helped offset the weight of the miners, he said. A single system wasn’t long enough so the rescuers used two, giving them a mechanical advantage that made 10 kilograms feel like one, Taillefer explained.

“It was slow, but it was working extremely well,” he said.

Leger said the double pulley system made a significant difference. “It was a big change and made things go a lot faster,” said the 49-year-old.

The operation was nonetheless exhausting. It would take three minutes to raise a miner up a six-metre ladder, Taillefer said.

“Then we’d rest for 15 minutes,” he said, adding that he’d lie down and try to sleep.

The rescue crew would then reset the pulley system, and start all over again with the next ladder.

“Our very last guy took us probably about eight or nine hours to get them up 30 of the 67 landings,” he said.

The miners weren’t hurt when the mine shaft was compromised and it was up to the rescue crew to ensure they stayed uninjured – that responsibility eventually took a toll, the rescuers said.

“There were times where the stress would just boil over and you would just start to cry for really no good reason at all,” Taillefer said.

For Leger, it was the first time he “felt physical stress turn into mental stress.”

But both said they took inspiration from the miners.

“A lot of these people had kids around the same age as ours and it was really important for us to get them home,” Taillefer said.

The last phase of the operation proved the most daunting.

At about 564 metres underground, the final four miners and the rescuers faced a 122-metre stretch of ladder, at an angle of 78 degrees, with “small landings that you could just sort of scooch over to rest your bum on,” Taillefer said.

The crew set up a two-rope system that three miners clipped into and climbed up, but the last miner was unable to scale that stretch.

The rescuers then set up a winch, placed the final miner in a basket and hauled him up as Taillefer climbed the ladder beside him.

Two hours later, near the top of that section, cold groundwater pouring through fissures in the rock hit the group.

“It was like somebody had a fire hose wide open on you,” Taillefer said.

Wet, cold and exhausted, the group returned to the AZTEK pulley system for a final 61 metres to get to an elevator that took them to the surface, Taillefer said.

It was shortly after 4 a.m. on Wednesday when the final miner and seven rescuers got to that point.

“You would have thought there was 100 people down there screaming, laughing and crying,” Taillefer said of the celebration that broke out.

“And there wasn’t as much as a Band-Aid on anybody,” Leger said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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Crime

Quebec mosque disappointed with ruling allowing killer to seek parole after 25 years

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QUEBEC — Families of the victims of the Quebec City mosque shooter say they fear Friday’s Supreme Court ruling means the 17 children who lost a father could one day meet the killer in the streets of Quebec’s capital.

Canada’s high court ruled that the killer who went on a deadly shooting spree at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 can apply for parole after 25 years behind bars. The court declared unconstitutional a 2011 Criminal Code provision that allowed a judge, in the event of multiple murders, to impose a life sentence and parole ineligibility periods of 25 years to be served consecutively for each murder.

Mohamed Labidi, president of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec, where the killer shot dead six men on Jan. 29, 2017, said families of the victims expressed real concern the killer would be a free man within a relatively short period of time.

“Maybe parole (officials) will delay this release a bit (and) will take that into account, but that’s our real fear,” Labidi told a news conference.

The Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec said in a statement Friday the high court decision did not give due consideration to “the atrocity and scourge of multiple murders” or to the hateful, Islamophobic, racist nature of the crime.

Members of the mosque said they were disappointed with the decision from the court, but they added it allows them to close the legal chapter and focus on the future.

“Philosophically, yes, we would like to turn the page and I, personally as an individual, want to turn the page,” mosque co-founder Boufeldja Benabdallah told reporters. “I have been hurt enough and I have cried enough.”

Benabdallah said the Supreme Court decision “breaks the balance” between a criminal’s chance at reintegrating society and his or her victims’ sense of justice.

“We take into account the rehabilitation of an individual … and to not give a punishment that is inadmissible, unusual or cruel,” Benabdallah said. “But at the same time, the families who have been affected must also feel that they have won their case, that the killer is being punished for his crimes.”

Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Five others were seriously injured in the January 2017 attack, including one man who was left paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. The six men who were shot dead left behind 17 children.

A trial judge found the 2011 parole ineligibility provision unconstitutional but did not declare it invalid, ultimately ruling Bissonnette must wait 40 years before applying for parole.

Quebec’s Court of Appeal said the trial judge erred in making the ineligibility period 40 years and that the court must revert to the law as it stood before 2011, resulting in a total waiting period for Bissonnette of 25 years. The Crown appealed that decision.

The Supreme Court said the 2011 law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that in order to ensure respect for the inherent dignity of every individual, the Charter requires Parliament to leave a door open for rehabilitation, even in cases where this objective is of secondary importance.

One of Bissonnette’s lawyers, Charles-Olivier Gosselin, said his client was relieved by the ruling.

“It’s a second chance, a second life that Mr. Bissonnette can hope for to demonstrate to society that he can be an asset, that he can work on himself, move on and look forward,” Gosselin said at the courthouse in Quebec City.

Daniel Bélanger, the chief prosecutor for Quebec City, said he would not comment on the decision out of deference to the high court, but he spoke of the victims and their families.

“This day marks for them the end of a long judicial process, but we are aware that it is not the end of their grieving and healing process,” Bélanger said, reading from a prepared statement.

He said the Crown and police in Quebec City were diligent in their work all the way to the Supreme Court, demonstrating the capacity for the judicial system to conclude complex cases in the public’s interest.

Bélanger reminded reporters in Quebec City that Bissonnette received a life sentence and it will be up to the parole board to decide whether he is released, which now won’t come before 2042. The killer, he said, would be subject to strict conditions and surveillance by a parole officer for the rest of his life in the event he is freed from prison.

“Although this case has become a constitutional debate regarding the provisions of the Criminal Code, we need to remember, in closure, the six people murdered and the other victims of this attack on Jan. 29, 2017,” Bélanger said.

“Our thoughts are now with the victims and their families and the community affected by this crime that has marked the collective consciousness. We praise their courage, their resilience and their dignity in this moment.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2022.

— By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal, with files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City.

The Canadian Press

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Crime

A look at some recent convictions that have led to consecutive murder sentences

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The Supreme Court of Canada struck down a Criminal Code provision Friday that meant multiple murderers might have to wait 50 years or more to apply for parole.

The unanimous high court decision came Friday in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, allowing him to seek parole after serving 25 years behind bars for fatally shooting six people at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.

Here is a look at some other cases where the law has been applied.

December 2018

Dellen Millard of Toronto is sentenced to a third life sentence for murder in the death of his father, Wayne Millard.

He was previously convicted along with his friend, Mark Smich, in the murders of Laura Babcock and Tim Bosma. He must serve 75 years before he can apply for parole.

February 2018

Benjamin Hudon-Barbeau, who infamously escaped from a Quebec detention centre by helicopter, is sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 35 years for ordering two murders and two attempted murders at the hands of a hit man.

December 2017

Basil Borutski, convicted of killing three women during an hour-long rampage in the Ottawa Valley in 2015, is sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 70 years.

Borutski was found guilty of first-degree murder in the slayings of Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, and of second-degree murder in the slaying of Carol Culleton.

Derek Saretzky of Blairmore, Alta., is sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 75 years.

A jury convicted him of three counts of first-degree murder in the 2015 deaths of Terry Blanchette, Blanchette’s two-year-old daughter, Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette, and Hanne Meketech.

February 2017

Douglas Garland is sentenced to life in prison without parole for 75 years for killing Alvin and Kathy Liknes and their five-year-old grandson, Nathan O’Brien.

Court heard Garland attacked the three victims in a Calgary home, then took them to his nearby farm, where he killed and dismembered them and burned their remains.

June 2016

John Ostamas, a homeless Winnipeg man who brutally beat three other transient men to death in separate attacks, is sent to prison for life with no chance of parole for 75 years.

Ostamas pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder for the 2015 killings that prompted police to warn the city’s homeless population to be careful.

October 2014

A judge in Moncton, N.B., sentences Justin Bourque to serve at least 75 years before he can request parole.

Bourque shot and killed three RCMP officers and wounded two others in June 2014.

He pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.

September 2013

A judge in Edmonton sentences Travis Baumgartner, an armoured-car guard, to life in prison with no chance of parole for 40 years for killing three colleagues during a bank machine robbery at the University of Alberta in 2012.

A fourth guard was badly hurt but survived.

Baumgartner pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and attempted murder.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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