Federal mine safety officials have drafted Kansas City Chiefs running back Thomas Jones to carry the agency's campaign warning people not to go into abandoned mines.
Because most victims of accidents in these mines tend to be adventurous young men ages 15 to 25, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main figured they would be more likely to listen to a former Pro Bowl runner with a Super Bowl ring than a bureaucrat from Washington, D.C.
Besides, Jones is not just a figurehead in MSHA's Stay Out/Stay Alive program he is the son of coal miners. His mother, Betty, worked 19 years in a coal mine near Big Stone Gap in southwestern Virginia.
"I know how dangerous these quarries, caves and abandoned mines can be," Jones said in a teleconference call Friday. "This is not a glamorous cause, but this is a serious situation and it's close to me because I lived it."
Jones said one of his brothers' friends drove an ATV into an abandoned mine shaft. He had to undergo reconstructive surgery on his face, but still ended up with a disfigured nose.
And Jones himself once became lost in a cave when his flash light went out.
"When you're a kid, you don't realize the dangers," Jones said. "The inside of a cave or mine is a whole different world. You may get stuck in there and nobody knows where you are."
These dangers are everywhere, said MSHA's Main. There are mines in every state in the U.S.," he said, noting that fatal accidents have occurred in recent years in 14 states. "So it's something we have to spend time educating the whole country about."
Utah is clearly at risk.
Luci Malin, director of the abandoned mines program in the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said the state has about 17,000 potentially dangerous holes in the ground left behind by mining activities.
She appreciates MSHA's annual campaign and thinks the presence of a prominent athlete will help spread the message.
"Kids will be getting out of school soon and scrambling around," Malin said. "Anything we can do to make them more aware and help them remember the dangers, the better."
So far this year, three fatalities have occurred at abandoned mines. One was Utah native Devin Westenskow, 28, who fell to his death March 4 in the Murphy mine in Nevada. Two other men died April 9 while scuba diving in an old mine in California.
MSHA records show there have been four other close calls this year.
To diminish the threat in Utah, Malin's teams are wrapping up two projects in the hard-rock mining district south and north of Eureka, Juab County, and a third involving abandoned uranium mines in the LaSal area southeast of Moab.
Stay Out/Stay Alive
O See Thomas Jones' public service announcements about the dangers of abandoned mines.