They were family men, one an experienced hard rock miner, the other a newcomer to a dangerous business who left a job in Colorado’s oil patch so he could be close to his young family.
On Sunday morning, Nicholas Cappanno, 33, went into a section of the Revenue-Virginius mine in Ouray County where an explosive had recently been detonated. When he didn’t come out, his shift foreman, Rick Williams, 59, went to find him.
They both died, overcome by lethal carbon monoxide the blast left behind.
Cappanno, who had been on the job for only about two weeks, “was my little brother,” said Eric Keep, 36, “he was probably one of the funniest guys. The other guy (Williams) was his boss and he died trying to save him. He is a hero.”
Williams “knew how to make the right decision and he put others before himself,” said his son, Nathan Williams, 25.
Miners who were working in the area found the bodies and detected the deadly levels of CO2 before evacuating, said Amy Louviere, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Twenty miners were taken to hospitals after the accident, and all have since been released.
The MSHA has required the mine operator to submit a plan to assure the mine is properly ventilated and all harmful gases have been removed so the investigation can begin, Louviere said.
The mine produced silver from 1876 until the 1940s. Denver-based Star Mine LLC resumed operations this year.
Williams, a Durango resident and father of two grown children, was among the first to take a job there when the mine reopened, Nathan Williams said.
He had mined gold, silver, “all sorts of things,” when he was younger, then left mining to become a contractor, building and remodeling homes, his son said. The poor economy led him back to mining.
“If it wasn’t for the market crash, he wouldn’t have had to get into it,” Nathan Williams said.
An U.S. Air Force veteran who worked in helicopter repair, Williams was raised, and spent most of his life in and around the San Juan Mountains, where mining is a way of life for many.
“He was tough, he took care of business, he wasn’t afraid to do the right thing, even if other people wouldn’t,” his son said.
Cappanno, too, was good with his hands, and had remodeled several homes, said his sister-in-law, Katie Caufield, 36.
He had worked in oil fields in Colorado and Wyoming, and was employed by a subcontractor in Rifle before going to work at the mine about two weeks before the accident, Keep said.
Working in the oil fields kept him away from his family for weeks at a time, and he wanted to be home with his wife, Martha, where he could tuck his children into bed at night.
He had grown up around miners — cousins and uncles labored below ground, Keep said. “Mom and dad and myself didn’t really feel comfortable with him going down there, but he is a grown man.”
A job in the mine also gave him an opportunity to work on something he was passionate about — brewing beer. He wanted to start a company that would malt grain for use by craft brewers, and he was pursuing his dream, Caufield said.
Mining “him the means to be with his family as much as possible and it gave him the opportunity to pursue his malting dream,” she said.
He was aware of the risks inherent in mining, Caufield said.
“My brother being so green on the job, a lack of experience may have contributed to his death,” Keep said. “ I don’t know if my brother was trying to prove himself by taking the lead.”