It was the last shift before the summer holidays and the day started well.
Early in the morning on July 3, 2005, eleven men from Operations Group 3 were in the Svea Nord mine hoping to break through the coal wall to the so-called CT4-adit.
A collegial rivalry with the other shifts over who would be the first to break through the layer made the atmosphere even better.
If they succeeded, they planned to celebrate with brandy.
"That's what we focused on, to make it through with the team, and we were doing well," said Nick Weis-Fogh, 38, a backup worker on the shift.
His task was supplying the other rig with equipment.
The work went like clockwork and at about 4 p.m. the breakthrough came they wanted.
"And that's when things went to hell," said Weis-Fogh about the fatal minutes that occurred ten years ago.
The jubilant cheers were interrupted by an alarm and a deadly puff of air.
A red warning light started flashing. A current went through the air, then invisible gas flowed through the hole they had made and displaced vital oxygen, several kilometers into the mountain.
"I remember saying 'Damn, I'm dizzy.' Then we just dropped like flies," Weis-Fogh said.
The 38-year-old, originally from Helsingør, Denmark, woke up after a short time. He apparently was located in a bubble of breathable air when he fell.
Weis-Fogh struggled to his feet. Groggily, he heard cries from foreman Tor Stenersen.
'Start the fan! Start the fan!'
"It was about 100 meters to the fan and I think I fainted several times on the way," Weis-Fogh said, "I started it and waited for the others. But they didn't come..."
"I stuck my head down and saw a guy laying unconscious. I took a little air in my lungs, went in and pulled him out."
The man regained consciousness. Together they sought out the oxygen boxes, the devices intended to ensure oxygen was available in an emergency.
They took as many they could carry and proceeded to connect them to their unconscious comrades.
"Eventually we dragged them out into the fresh air," Weis-Fogh said. "But there was one man we did not come to until it was too late."
Frank Wiggo Karlsen was working the farthest inside on the machine and was laying in a tricky spot.
"There was never a hint of life in him and we lifted him up and put him in the shuttle car behind the (coal mining machine)," said Terje Michelsen, one of the miners, during a trial in Nord-Troms District Court in 2007. "Eventually the ambulance came and attempts were made with a defibrillator. Without results."
The doctor decided to discontinue the resuscitation attempts.
There was nothing more they could do. The 34-year-old from Kvæfjord never woke again.
"It was a terrible message to get," Weis-Fogh said. "I punched my first into the car until it was more painful than the pain in my head. Losing a colleague is hard. When you are in Svea you live in teams, you eat in teams and you sit in the smoking room in teams. Everybody knows each other well. On that shift were the only ones who had kids and we used to talk a lot about things around that."
Frank Wiggo Karlsen left behind his wife Mette, and children Marcus, 10, and Linn, 1.
A memorial, written by Store Norske and LNS leaders, describes a conscientious miner, full of eagerness to work and always ready to lend a hand.
He built a house with his young girlfriend in his hometown of Borkenes and took a job the the mines to make his family's finances more plentiful. He first worked for LNS in Ballarat.
In 2002, he went to Svalbard. His wife and two little ones were always in mind.
"In the days before the accident occurred, he told fellow workers about holiday plans and how much he looked forward to a long summer with Mette, Marcus and Linn," the eulogy states.
"We will do everything to prevent similar accidents from happening again."
Feelings of guilt
The fatal accident was the start of a long and, for many, agonizing process.
The reason for the accident had to be found and blame allocated to prevent something similar from happening again.
"The rounds in the time afterwards were tough and difficult," Weis-Fogh said. "Many lives are affected by such an incident and it rips up a lot. Even though I was on sick leave immediately afterwards."
In the newspapers, he was hailed as a hero for having rescued comrades. But he disliked the characterization greatly.
"I felt an incredible guilt and had every possible thought," he said. "There was one man we didn't managed to rescue. Did we get it right? Should we have first attempted to save him since he lay in the most difficult place? I felt in no way like a hero. Anyone else would have done exactly the same in that situation."
Was not ventilated
CT4 is three kilometers long and has an incline of 120 meters.
Methane is lighter than oxygen, and had therefore accumulated in large quantities at the top and displaced oxygen there through the just-opened layer.
As the guys made their way through the coal wall, choking gas poured through and resulted in almost immediate unconsciousness.
The consequences of the accident were huge. Why wasn't the area checked and vented ahead of the team, as the regulations required?
Operations Engineer Bjørn Fjukstad, who was responsible for checking the air, was prosecuted and sentenced to 60 days' imprisonment.
Three middle managers were fined 15,000 to 20,000 kroner, while Store Norske received a record fine of 10 million kroner for breach of procedures.
"This time one human life was lost," said Otto Bjarte Johnsen of The Norwegian Labor Inspection Authority at the time. "At worst, the entire workforce could have suffered the same fate."
Not enough oxygen
The accident could have been avoided.
Four days earlier, supervisor Per Magne Pedersen went into the CT4-adit. About 240 meters in, he took readings of the air.
The methane content was within safety limits, but the oxygen content was dangerously low.
He didn't feel any discomfort and turned around, according to court statements in 2007.
The measurements brought "neither an alarm nor any actions by Store Norske,'" Svalbardposten wrote.
A key document was also presented in court noting the CT4-aidt should have been checked for methane gas before it was broken through and that Fjukstad, the operations engineer, was responsible for ensuring it was completed
But that was not done.
Fjukstad testified in court the document was not addressed directly to him and he therefore did not read it until after the accident.
Today he doesn't want to comment about the accident.
"I am finished with the matter," he told Svalbardposten.
Robert Hermansen, Store Norske's administrative director at the time, admits internal communications failed.
"That meant that not everyone was informed of the situation, which caused a tragic outcome," he told Svalbardposten. "We accepted the fine, of course, but a fine can't restore the damage and missing, among either fellow workers and family."
"I hope the lessons we got at that time are staying with everyone working with the mining operations now," he said. "Something like that can never happen again."
Living out the dream
The fatal accident on July 3, 2005, was the second Weis-Fogh experienced as a miner.
Only two years earlier, colleague Tom Lund, 34, was killed by a two-ton boulder.
That also happened at Svea Nord.
"After a pair of such events I have realized that life is too short to just go around and dream about doing something else," Weis-Fogh said. "You need to actually just go ahead and do it."
He is now taking a year's leave from Store Norske to sail and embark on charters in the Arctic aboard his 73-foot-long yacht Skydancer with his wife Torill Estella Pfaff.
"It's good to do something different after 15 years in the mine," he said. "We have this boat and would like to experience new things. Meet other kinds of people and be a little less materialistic. This has long been the dream."
Nick Weis-Fogh, 38, lost two friends in the coal mines. Now he's spending time living out the dream on board the "Skydancer". FOTO: Lise Ottem
Ten years since the fatal accident at Svea:
"I remember saying, 'Damn, I'm dizzy.' Then we just dropped like flies."
Nick Weis-Fogh saw his friend die in the mine.
07.07.2015 kl 09:48
It was the last shift before the summer holidays and the day started well.
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