Kenny Barbosa had a passion for fixing antique cars and drilling water wells, but the money the young father made as a gold miner kept him going underground.
Mike Millican, a single dad, was concerned about safety conditions in the deep mines near Winnemucca and was looking for work closer to his Oregon home.
Curtis (C.J.) Johnson mined gold for 10 years, following a family tradition that led him to build a life and family in Northern Nevada.
From August to April, the men were killed in separate incidents at the same underground mine, the state's only mining fatalities during that period.
The three deaths in a period of less than eight months at Humboldt County's Getchell mine have raised troubling questions about the management and oversight of the site.
Now the mine might close for good.
Last month's fatal accident is still under investigation, but the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has concluded that the two previous deaths were caused by inadequate "management procedures and controls" at the mine.
Rod Breland, a former MSHA safety chief, said the spate of deaths at the mine is disturbing.
"It's hard to explain how you have three fatalities in less than a year without there being a problem with safety programs," he said. "If the mine has had problems in the past, you also have to wonder why elevated enforcement action didn't kick in."
In August, Johnson, 36, was crushed in a cave-in at the mine. In January, Millican, 43, was run over by an underground ore-hauling vehicle. And in April, Barbosa, 28, became another victim of falling rock.
The Getchell mine, operated by Small Mine Development LLC, a contractor based in Boise, Idaho, hadn't had a deadly accident since 1997, when it was under different ownership. Before the recent incidents, SMD had gone 25 years without a fatality at any of its mines.
But state regulators say they have had misgivings about the inner workings of the Getchell mine.
"It's really terrible ground, very loose," said Jeff Bixler, of the Nevada Mine Safety and Training Section of the state Division of Industrial Relations. "You have to be very careful, or you'll have falls. It's a risky kind of thing that has to be checked out daily."
In the wake of Barbosa's death, MSHA plans a complete safety review of the mine, with an emphasis on ground control procedures, said agency spokesman Matt Faraci.
SMD president Ron Guill told the Review-Journal last week that he has opted to close shop, leaving the mine's future uncertain.
"I just couldn't put our people through any more of this," Guill said. "We never thought anything like this could happen to us once, let alone three times."
Should the mine have been closed sooner?
A Review-Journal examination of recent MSHA inspection records reveals the agency detected, but didn't fully act on, problems at the mine, especially concerning the geological stability of areas where miners routinely worked.
SMD received 55 safety citations from MSHA for violations at the Getchell mine between January 2007 and early April 2008. Of those violations, 18 were classified by MSHA as "serious and substantial." Fines for all the citations totaled less than $10,000.
Every active mine in the nation must be federally inspected at least four times a year, and Nevada mining regulators are required to inspect mines at least once a year. MSHA made routine inspections of the Getchell mine within a month of each of the fatal accidents, agency records show.
The Getchell mine had been inspected a few weeks before the incident that killed Johnson, but no violations were issued for ground control problems.
Last year, MSHA, the lead regulatory agency for the nation's nearly 15,000 mines, including 28 Nevada gold mines, issued 124 serious violations on ground control to mines throughout the state.
In the eight months between the deaths of Johnson and Barbosa, MSHA cited Small Mine Development 11 times for poor ground support. All but two of those violations were considered serious. None, however, was categorized as "willful." For that reason, the mine avoided a closure order.
Two months after the incident that cost Johnson his life, MSHA inspectors wrote of hazardous conditions at the mine:
"With this number of violations, it was obvious that there had been no examination of ground conditions in some time. ... Without a proper examination of ground conditions, and removal of loose ground, serious injury to persons could be expected, if an accident was to occur."
SMD was ordered after Johnson's death to revise its roof and ground control plan, but changes to the plan were not immediately shared with the company's underground miners who had to implement them, according to MSHA records. By mid-February, however, MSHA reported the employees had been trained in the new procedures.
"We may not have read an edict to them, but everybody knew what they were supposed to be doing," Guill said. "Neither of the men (in the ground fall incidents) were doing anything wrong."
Guill said his company didn't have a full-time safety director at the Getchell mine until after Millican's death in January.
SMD employs more than 300 miners at eight mines in the Western United States.
The nonunion Getchell mine, located about 40 miles northeast of Winnemucca, is one of two underground mines that compose the Turquoise Ridge Joint Venture. The other mine on the property, which isn't operated by SMD, has had five deaths since 1999, three related to ground falls.
The Barrick Gold Corp. is the operator of the joint venture and has a 75 percent interest in it. Newmont Mining Corp. holds the other 25 percent interest.
The 40 miners at the Getchell operation worked fewer hours there in 2007 than they had in each of the two previous years.
Guill said his company got permission from Barrick earlier this month to cease work at the Getchell mine four months earlier than had been originally scheduled.
But Barrick spokesman Lou Schack said the company would consider reopening the mine with a different operator.
"For now, we have ceased operations until we can determine if we can operate the mine safely," Schack said.
'WORKING WITH A FAMILY'
Dan Manhire and his wife moved to Winnemucca, population 7,600, in February so that Dan could work in the mines alongside longtime friend Kenny Barbosa, who had been a miner for two years. The men had grown up together and remained close as their respective jobs took them from Oregon to Idaho to Nevada.
Gold was booming, and Manhire decided to try his luck in the Humboldt County mines.
He soon found out that the work was hard, but the money was good. In less than four months at the mine, Manhire made $25,000, he said.
Manhire was just getting used to working underground, when on April 21, he saw a piece of backfill in the Getchell mine crash down on his best friend and crush him to death.
Manhire, standing only a few feet away, was unhurt. Another miner suffered a broken leg.
SMD has offered to reassign each Getchell miner to a different property, but Manhire isn't sure he wants to work at another mine.
"When you work underground, you work with a family," he said. "This has been very hard. I'm just taking things day to day right now."
Ground falls are more commonly associated with underground coal mines, but those at the Turquoise Ridge property show the potential for catastrophe in underground gold mines.
Coal mining disasters tend to draw more public attention, but a comparable number of mining deaths nationwide have occurred in coal (277) and noncoal (271) mines since 2000, MSHA data show.
Though there are nearly 13,000 metal and nonmetal mines in the United States, compared with only 2,000 coal mines, MSHA has nearly twice as many inspectors for coal operations. There are 123,000 coal miners and 255,000 noncoal miners in the United States. A nearly equal number of coal miners work at surface and underground mines, but a vast majority of the noncoal miners work on the surface.
Half of Nevada's gold mines are underground operations.
Former MSHA official Breland said certain safety issues at gold and other noncoal mines are sometimes overlooked by regulators, because metal and nonmetal miners lack the kind of vocal safety advocates that coal miners have, primarily through the United Mine Workers of America.
In the absence of such advocates, the Getchell miners had each other.
For Kelly Karnowski, Barbosa's fiancée, the hardest part was trying to explain to her 21/2-year-old son, Jason, why his dad is gone: "I told him that dad got really hurt at work and won't be coming back to us, that he'd be a star in the sky."
WAITING ON A CALL
Barbosa's death brought back painful memories for Heather Johnson.
In the early morning of Aug. 28, she was waiting on a call from her husband, C.J. He had planned to end his shift at the mine early, so the couple could watch a total lunar eclipse.
A student of mining history, C.J. Johnson recently had read a book about a 1972 fire at an underground silver mine in Idaho that killed 91.
He knew his job had inherent dangers, but he loved mining.
On the night of the eclipse, 500 miles from the Johnson home, a rescue team in Utah was in the final days of a fruitless search for six coal miners trapped in a roof collapse there.
The Getchell mine uses a mining method known as "long-hole stoping," by which gold ore is excavated in horizontal slices starting at the bottom of an underground mine. A mixture of rock and other materials is used to keep mine floors stable as mining progresses upward toward the surface. The roof of the mine is secured in part by mechanized bolting machines.
C.J. Johnson was very experienced in the procedure.
Near dawn, Heather Johnson's phone rang. But it wasn't C.J. It was a mining official informing her that her husband of 15 years had been killed in an accident.
As Johnson was unloading supplies to continue bolting in the Getchell mine, the area he was working in gave out and buried him under hundreds of tons of rock.
It took a rescue team 32 hours to find his body amid the rubble.
Nevada Mine Safety and Training's report on the incident concluded: "These highly trained and highly skilled miners and staff honestly thought they could get through the ground with little or no problem. This time they were wrong!"
The state report cited several factors as contributing to the accident: complacency, geology and blind faith.
Heather Johnson, an elementary school principal with three school-age children, knows all the Getchell miners and some of the inspectors who also make a living going into the mines.
She tries to avoid assigning blame for her husband's death.
"This has been life-changing for every single person who works there," she said. "Anybody you ask would say my husband wouldn't put himself in a situation he didn't think was safe."
Guill said a combination of unstable ground and bad luck were the reasons for Johnson and Barbosa's deaths.
"All Nevada ground is unstable," he said. "Miners go in every day and look, and every day conditions change. Yes, we knew the ground was bad, but what happened was out of their hands."
As gold prices have soared, Nevada mines produced about 6 million ounces of gold last year valued at a record $4.2 billion. Nevada is the third largest gold producer in the world, bested only by Australia and South Africa.
But beyond the dollars and cents are the deaths that have shaken the tight-knit mining community around Winnemucca, home to a fourth miner who died in July at a mine run by Newmont Midas Operations.
John Gardella, who works at the other mine on the Turquoise Ridge property, said miners in the area now have a heightened awareness of the dangers of the job.
"You go underground every day and you don't know if you're coming out," Gardella said. "We're all at risk in one way or another. You just have to try and look out for yourself and the guy next to you."
It was miscommunication in the Getchell mine that led to the January death of Mike Millican, a haul truck driver from Detroit, Ore., who had a decade of experience.
Millican was run over by an equipment operator who was moving Millican's parked truck away from a loading area.
He left behind a 13-year-old son.
MSHA later found the co-worker had failed to sound an alarm on the truck to warn others in the mine that the vehicle was moving. The state, in its report, noted that a back-up alarm was not working on the truck.
Cindy Whitten, who drives miners to and from work each day on a company bus, said: "All of us in some way are attached to the mine. When somebody's killed, it affects all of us."
The families of the victims, meanwhile, said the company and community have been there for them.
But the support of the town won't necessarily be enough to keep them around.
Heather Johnson has decided to move her family to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, at the end of the school year.
Karnowski and Dan Manhire and his wife aren't sure they'll stay in Winnemucca either. Kenny Barbosa brought them all there, and now he's gone.
Millican's family in Oregon is angry about the deaths at the mine.
"It's absolutely appalling what's happened there," said Sue Crowder, Millican's sister. "There was a complete lack of safety measures at this mine, and the fact that they weren't shut down totally calls into question the viability of MSHA's work."
Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0404.