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Unit from W.Va. starts boring 240-foot lifeline into earth's surface

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Milan Simonich and Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

QUECREEK, Pa. -- Whether nine miners live or die may depend on a "super drill" imported yesterday from Clarksburg, W.Va.

The drill was being used last night to bore a 30-inch hole 240 feet into the earth, where the miners are trapped in a flooded shaft. Black Wolf Coal Co., owner of the Quecreek Mine, requested the special drill after the mine accident was reported at about 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Workers set up the "super drill." (Steve Helber, AP Photo)

Once the drilling equipment was located at a West Virginia job site, it was disassembled and hauled to the Quecreek Mine in five separate vehicles. Delivery was made under a police escort about 2:30 p.m. yesterday.

Drilling on the rescue chamber began about 7:30 p.m. Rescue crews initially said the drilling would take about 18 hours, but they backed away from a prediction last night.

Joseph Sbaffoni, a deep mine safety expert with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said drills capable of boring a 240 foot path to the mine are rare. He said he did not know how many such drills were in use across the country.

Even after the drill arrived, miscommunication left rescue workers momentarily unaware of its arrival, even with police sirens blaring. But, Sbaffoni said, that glitch did not slow the rescue effort. So much preparation was necessary on the drilling site, he said, that the tool could not have been put to immediate use anyway.

DEP Secretary David Hess said that although rescue workers heard taps from the miners earlier in the day, the afternoon was marked by such a flurry of work on the rescue effort that communication with the miners became harder to detect as the day wore on.

 
 
Hypothermia is the enemy

The coal miners trapped in a flooded Somerset County mine faced another danger nearly as great as drowning -- hypothermia.

Hypothermia is subnormal temperature within the central body.

When a person is immersed in cold water, the skin and nearby tissues cool quickly. When the core temperature drops from the normal 98.6 degrees to below 90 degrees, serious complications begin to develop. Death may occur at about 80 degrees.

But a person can lose consciousness or the ability to use arms or legs before that.

Survival in cold water depends on many factors; the temperature of the water is only one. Others include body size, fat and activity in the water. Large people cool more slowly than small people.

At a body temperature of about 96 degrees, a person begins shivering and experiencing the sensation of being cold. At 93 degrees, muscles become rigid and a person loses manual dexterity; at 86 degrees, a person may become unconscious.

   
 

Hess said he did not want to raise or dash the hopes of the miners' relatives. Rather he said nothing can be known for certain about the men's fate until the super drill tears though the earth and allows rescuers to reach the trapped miners.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, one piece of rescue equipment that may be used at Quecreek is the Mine Emergency Unit rescue capsule.

It consists of three sections which can be deployed either in tandem or separately. The upper two sections can accommodate one person each, and the bottom section is used for equipment or supplies. Sliding doors on each personnel section allow easy entrance and exit, even in low-entry situations. Several communications systems can be used in conjunction with the capsule to communicate with passengers.

The techniques being used by emergency workers in the rescue attempt are well-established but risky.

"It's a proven process but it's a race against time," Raja Ramani, professor emeritus and former head of Penn State University's mining training program, said yesterday.

"I am fairly sure there are very good people on the front line," he said. "The federal and state governments are well-prepared to handle emergencies and the health and safety conditions in U.S. mines are much better than they were even 20 years ago."

Ramani said there are instances where miners have been successfully rescued from flooded mines because they were able to move to high parts of the shaft above the water and find air pockets to breathe.

"If there is a pocket of air and the water level does not rise very fast so as to drown these people, it will give some time for rescue and recovery work," said Ramani, who was heartened by reports that tapping was heard on a metal pipe.

MSHA officials, which joined those from DEP at the scene, brought seismic listening devices to help search for sounds of life.

"It's relatively shallow. That's the good news," David Lauriski, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said from Denver, where he was speaking to a conference of safety experts.

Lauriski called the accident a "heart-wrenching" tragedy in an industry that has over the years greatly improved its safety records. He said he did not know how many accidents of this type have occurred but believed there were relatively few.

"This industry has proven it can be near the top of the safest industries, but it's a very dynamic industry," he said. "It's not a manufacturing setting. There are inherent hazards in mining, particularly underground."

Mining has been going on in Pennsylvania for more than 200 years and Ramani said old abandoned shafts are common in the state. Newer shafts are well mapped, but for older mines, the maps can be incomplete or inaccurate.

Lauriski said MSHA was trying to determine how long the abandoned shaft had been idle.

The trapped miners apparently believed the adjacent mine was some 300 feet away from where they were working. Ramani said he expected their breach into the old flooded mine shaft surprised them.

Typically, abandoned mines gradually fill with water. Ramani said it was difficult to guess what exactly happened in this instance except that the pressure of the stored water was too great.

Staff writer Steve Levin contributed to this report.

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