ELKO — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reported Monday the abandoned mine shaft where an accident claimed a man’s life is being permanently closed.
The closure is with the permission of the family of Devin James Westenskow to prevent anyone else falling down the mine, according to the BLM.
Professional rescue crews made repeated attempts to reach Westenskow after he fell into the shaft Wednesday, but the effort was called off Friday morning because of dangers to the rescue crews.
Westenskow, 28, was pronounced dead at 11:55 a.m. Friday, after the rescue attempts ended.
His body will remain on site, the BLM stated in an announcement Monday.
“This loss of life is tragic,” said Amy Lueders, BLM’s Nevada state director. “The BLM is committed to working with the Nevada Division of Minerals to identify and close these mine hazards on public lands.”
She also said the agency is committed to ongoing efforts to increase awareness of the “Stay Out and Stay Alive” abandoned mine land safety campaign.
“No one should go into an abandoned mine,” Lueders said.
Westenskow and two companions were exploring around abandoned mines in Jersey Valley when he fell roughly 200 feet down an open mine stope.
The mine was last worked in the 1940s, and falling rock split one rescuer’s hard hat, according to The Associated Press.
An AP report said ethical questions surrounding the accident included how to balance the desire to save the life of the victim with keeping emergency rescue workers alive.
“You’re playing God in a sense,” Rob McGee, secretary-treasurer of the U.S. Mine Rescue Association, told AP.
McGee said he can’t recall a mine rescue operation that was halted while someone was still alive. But, he noted, a rescue gone awry compounds such a tragedy, adding another layer of grief. Only officials on the ground can know how best to proceed, he said.
“Whoever made the call in Nevada I’m sure they’re hearing it from both ends because there’s always someone who’s saying, ’No, don’t give up,’” McGee said.
Indeed, family members of Westenskow praised rescuers for their efforts and, in a joint statement, said they understood when told early Friday of the decision to call off the rescue effort, AP reported.
“It was extremely difficult for all of those involved with the rescue attempt. We all sat there in shock and disbelief trying to process the terrible news,” said a family statement released Sunday by Ronald Schrempp, an uncle of the victim’s mother.
“Family members offered prayers and said their good-byes to Devin. We asked for the angels to be with him. It was the hardest thing ever to leave Devin on that mountain in the mine shaft,” Schrempp said.
He said the family was told that rescuers were able to get within about 50 feet of Westenskow before they had to pull back early Friday, due to the hazards.
Such understanding wasn’t unanimous, however, according to AP. As news reports of the trapped man gained national attention, newspaper readers and others online reacted with a mix of comments that included strong opinion that no one should be abandoned in such a situation.
Corey Schuman, owner of Gold Rush Expeditions, a Salt Lake City-based company that locates and files claims on abandoned mines, questioned the decision to stop while Westenskow was still alive.
“I have no doubt we could have pulled him out without a problem,” he said Sunday. “It’s really not too dangerous. It’s a lack of experience that causes problems. Nobody really trains for this and goes into abandoned mines. I have been down shafts 200 or 300 feet and it’s not a problem.”
J. Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration, told AP that mine rescues may be subject to such intense second guessing, in part because they are followed closely by the public and media, and tactics in solving the crisis come down to a judgment call.
“There are no rules for mine rescues. Each situation is different and each mine-rescue decision has to be made by people on the ground,” McAteer said. “The decision has to be made on a judgment that they won’t put the rescuers at risk, and it’s a balancing act that they have to decide.”
Since 1869, 151 rescuers have died in 39 mine accidents in the U.S. with 17 of those fatalities occurring in three accidents since 2000, according to statistics compiled by McGee’s organization, based in Uniontown, Pa.
The AP reported there was no comment from law enforcement on the decision to call off the rescue effort at the abandoned mine.
BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley stated Monday the victim’s parents were present, and she had heard they were involved in the decision.
The Lander County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Team was first on the scene on Wednesday, according to the Nevada Division of Minerals, and more rescue teams joined the effort.
Newmont Mining Corp. confirmed Monday that a crew from the Phoenix Mine south of Battle Mountain was at the accident site as volunteers.
The Washoe County Search and Rescue Hasty Team, the Naval Air Station Fallon, Pershing County Sheriff's Office and Pershing County Search and Rescue, the Nevada Department of Public Safety, the Nevada Department of Minerals, Access Air, ORMAT Geothermal and many other volunteers participated in the rescue attempts, according to BLM.
Westenskow, of Evanston, Wyo., had children ranging in age from 1 to 9, and was divorced but engaged to be married, his family said. He was an avid hunter and snowmobiler who loved the outdoors. He worked at a geothermal drilling operation in Nevada.
“He was a quiet guy. A hard worker,” Schrempp said. “He loved to explore the outback of Nevada and Wyoming.”