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Rockfall Emergency: The Untold Story

The daunting accident scene at the north Canterbury limestone quarry.

How industry figures and others toiled mightily to try to save the life of a trapped quarry manager in an operation which began as a rescue but ended in a recovery. By GAVIN RILEY.

In the late morning of Monday, June 8, New Zealanders were shocked by breaking news of an unusual and dramatic accident. A cliff-face collapse at a north Canterbury quarry had almost buried a 65-tonne excavator under more than 1500 tonnes of rubble, trapping the operator, Murray Taylor.

Taylor, 56, managed the small limestone quarry, which his company, Heathstock Haulage, had leased from Hurunui District Council for 15 years.

Close up of the accident scene – note the “Rosco” excavator.
Close up of the accident scene – note the “Rosco” excavator.

The nature of the accident immediately triggered what is known as CIMS – the coordinated incident management system, which is always led by the police.

When it became apparent the situation involved a high degree of difficulty, the underground mines emergency protocol was added, which introduced expert technical capability as part of the incident control team.

WorkSafe despatched some of its high-hazard unit (HHU) inspectors to the site – marking probably the first time in New Zealand that inspectors had occupied a lead role in an above-ground mining or quarrying emergency.

Chief inspector mines and extractives Tony Forster was advised by his deputy, Dave Bellett, who was on site, that the team was faced with a particularly difficult and hazardous situation, including “compromised” geology.

“I was in contact with my deputy and other members of the HHU team during the day and as the afternoon progressed I was informed that this was not going to be routine in any way, shape or form and that more team members would be required on site,” Forster says.

The rockfall trapping Murray Taylor was extremely challenging. His excavator was almost completely buried and it was under a near-vertical, 50-metre-high face of limestone with some overhangs. At the top of the face there were tension cracks and signs the face might not be stable.

By the Monday evening it was obvious matters had reached an impasse and emergency services and inspectors on site were deeply uncomfortable about the situation confronting them.

“On the Tuesday morning I and other team members went down to the site, and while we were en route we started to make phone calls to local crane-hire companies and various other specialist equipment providers,” says Forster, who had been involved in emergency planning, rescues and recoveries in Britain’s mines before taking up his present job in 2013.

“After we got to the site and carried out an inspection it was clear there were potentially several ways the situation could be approached. One was to strip the overburden off the top of the cliff. But that was going to be very lengthy and very difficult and probably would have brought more debris down on top of the buried excavator.

“There were strong hopes Murray was alive, so we had to work on the principle that this was a rescue and not simply a recovery.”

In response to Forster’s request for help, Holcim provided Darcy Madden, described by Forster as a “rock doctor” from Kiwi Pt quarry and a top-gun excavator operator. Solid Energy chief executive Dan Clifford made available his senior geotechnical engineer, Mike Begbie, and he and Forster carried out a site inspection, making geotechnical and geological observations and assessing likely trigger points and evacuation safe points on the quarry floor.

Also on site were quarry workers – and a friend of the Taylor family, “Rosco” (Ross) Moore, who was to prove immensely helpful.

Among the ideas put together by the team were those of Forster’s deputy, Dave Bellett, who was experienced in rigging heavy wire cables, having worked in ski-lift construction both in New Zealand and the United States.

The option the team ran with was both to excavate the buried machine and utilise the heaviest lifting gear it could obtain, which turned out to be towing equipment capable of moving 200 tonnes. Brought to the site were two D8 bulldozers, a Smith Crane & Construction Hiab and pick-and-carry crane, heavy wire cables and heavy pulleys.

Through Tuesday the team cleared rockfall debris from the buried excavator and attempted several times to pull the machine out using the heavy-pull equipment. Quite a bit of equipment was destroyed in the process because the digger arm was trapped by a massive boulder weighing an estimated 100 to 150 tonnes. (It was thought between 1500 and 2000 tonnes of debris had actually fallen onto the machine.)

The team worked through the day hoping Murray Taylor might still be alive. But as night fell and electric lighting was set up, it became obvious to everyone that they had run out of energy and ideas – and had torn much of the equipment apart.

“We had set up a fresh pull but we were reluctant at about eight o’clock, when we were all pretty well in an extreme state of fatigue, to risk making any mistakes,” Forster says.

“In agreement with the police, we decided we could do no more. It was completely dark and our spotters couldn’t see the key rocks on the opposite faces, so we decided to call it a day. That caused some distress to the family but I think they understood that we had run ourselves into the ground.”

First thing Wednesday morning the team confirmed that Murray Taylor had not survived the catastrophic damage to his excavator and this was now a recovery operation. While Darcy Madden deftly cleared away surrounding rockfall debris with a digger, the team considered two options: to break the 150-tonne rock holding the 65-tonne excavator, or to tear the entire arm off the machine. The second option prevailed, with Rosco Moore offering valuable advice on the machine’s construction and the best way to go about the task.

It wasn’t a situation where anyone stood by. It was a team effort and everyone played a part – including regulators, who shattered their popular image as high-viz guys with clipboards. Tony Forster helped with chain-rigging and some of the difficult lifts, and he and Dave Bellett shovelled away rockfall to enable steel bars to be placed underneath the tracks of the trapped excavator.

Bit by bit, team members pulled the excavator out. They turned it through 120 degrees and wrenched the arm free of the machine, allowing the two D8 bulldozers to do the pulling. One D8 was used as an anchor in the double pull through the pulley system, and the other was used as a device to create tension on the massive steel ropes, which were nearly two inches (50mm) in diameter and needed a crane to be moved around.

It was nearly mid-afternoon by the time the emergency team was able to inform the local volunteer fire brigade it was now safe for them to move in and, along with the police, extricate Murray Taylor’s body.

Tony Forster is high in his praise of the police’s leadership in the emergency operation and says the officer in charge, Inspector Corrie Parnell, did a stellar job.

“I’m so proud of the people who came to help us that day,” he adds. “Mike Begbie from Solid Energy, Darcy Madden from Holcim, Alistair Dalzell from Smith Crane & Construction, the individual miners and quarry workers, and my own staff – Dave Bellet and extractives specialists Phillip Fourie and Ivan Morice. They were magnificent.

“And [Taylor family friend] ‘Rosco’ Moore, of course. He was a force of nature – very clever and very considerate in the way he worked. He played a big part in making sure the operation moved forward.”

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