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Rescuers hit setback in race to save miners

Helicopter to fly in replacement drill bit after breakdown in early morning hours snags rescue dig

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Dan Gigler, Johnna A. Pro, Bob Batz Jr., and Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

QUECREEK, Pa. - Rescuers were scrambling this morning to work around a broken drill bit that set back their efforts to reach nine coal miners trapped 240 feet underground in a dark, flooded coal mine shaft and 55-degree temperatures.

Gov. Mark Schweiker, on the scene this morning, said efforts to drill an escape shaft to the miners hit a snag in the early morning hours when the drill bit broke.

Unidentified spectators watch the drilling operation in the restricted area at the Quecreek mine this morning. (Keith Srakocic, AP Photo)


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A replacement was being flown to the site by helicopter and boring was expected to resume as quickly as possible, he said.

"We've had a setback," Schweiker said. "We've got quite a ways to go."

Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said the drill bit broke at 1:05 a.m. at about 105 feet down.

Crews were working to fish the broken drill bit out of the rescue shaft as the first option.

But Schweiker said crews were also now preparing a second rescue shaft site 75 feet from the first one as an alternative. Preparations for the backup shaft, if needed, will still require a number of hours, he said.

Authorities were estimating drilling could resume no sooner than 11 a.m. today and that another eight hours of drilling were ahead at the time of the first drill bit failure.

The governor said that air being pumped down to the cavity where the miners are thought to be trapped was also being heated at temperatures rescuers hoped would help the miners hang on by forestalling hypothermia from the chilling flood waters in the mine shaft.

Schweiker expressed confidence the setback would be overcome. "Our working notion is we're on a rescue mission and we're going to bring our nine guys out."

He also praised the miners, rescue workers and the families of those trapped in the coal mine. The governor spent time with those family members yesterday and said he found them to be "tough Pennsylvanians, very resilient, ever so hopeful and very prayerful."

Using a sophisticated drill, rescue crews began boring a 36-inch hole through the earth last night in hope of reaching the miners no later than mid-afternoon today. They have been trapped since shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday when they accidentally drilled into a neighboring abandoned mine, releasing a flood of water.

There was no way to tell whether the men, all from Pennsylvania, had room to breathe in a space only 48 to 52 inches high. But if they could keep their heads above water, they might be able to survive the cold and damp, said Joseph Sbaffoni, a deep-mine safety expert with the Pennsylvania DEP.

"It's probably wet, cold and dark," he said. "Coal miners are a special breed. If anybody can get through it, a coal miner can."

Tapping was detected from deep within the mine until about noon yesterday after a 6-inch air shaft was drilled into it.

 
 
Fighting the clock

WEDNESDAY
(some times are approximate)

8:50 p.m. -- Miners inside the Quecreek Mine dig through the wall of abandoned Saxman No. 2 mine and 50 million to 60 million gallons of groundwater begin pouring into Quecreek.

9 p.m. -- Members from a team of nine miners a mile inside Quecreek use a mine phone to alert another team of nine miners to evacuate.

9:30 p.m. -- The second team, the miners alerted by phone, leaves the mine.

9:53 p.m. -- Aware that one team is not out, mine officials call 911 with a report of 10 miners suffering water-related injuries.

11:30 to midnight -- The call goes out to find a large drill, big enough for a hole to raise men from the mine. One subsequently is located in Clarksburg, W.Va.

YESTERDAY

Midnight -- Workers start boring a 6-inch hole to where the miners are trapped.

3:30 a.m. -- The drill reaches the area where the miners are. Rescuers hear banging on the drill that they say they are certain are signals from miners.

11:30 a.m. -- The last signals are heard, although rescuers say other signals might have been covered by the roar of machinery.

2:30 p.m. -- The large drill arrives.

7:30 p.m. -- Rescuers begin drilling a 30-inch wide hole through which rescuers hope to drop a basket and rescue miners.

8 p.m. -- The frantic effort to pump water from Quecreek seems to be succeeding, with officials reporting that the water level is dropping.

TODAY

1:05 a.m. -- The drill bit breaks about 105 feet down, and crews can't retrieve it from the hole.

11:10 a.m. -- Digging begins with a second drill erected 75 feet from the first.

   
 

"We'd [tap] three [times], they'd hit three. We knew they were responsive in every sense," Sbaffoni said.

As late as 3 p.m. yesterday, seismic equipment brought in by federal mining officials detected sounds that could have been signals from the men below, according to Kevin Stricklin, of the U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety Health Administration.

The sounds faded later, but officials stressed that noise from rescue efforts could have drowned out any attempts by the miners to signal the surface.

Officials managing the rescue operation declined to name the miners, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette learned the identities of four.

They are Somerset County residents Ronald Hileman of Gray, Robert "Boogie" Pugh of Ferrelton, John Phillippi of the Quecreek area and John Unger, also of the Quecreek area.

Sharon Gindlesberger, who lives in Quecreek, said her family received a call yesterday informing them that Unger, a family friend, was among those trapped.

"I didn't even know he was working there," she said, describing him as a friend of her father, Ralph, who was disabled in a mining accident in neighboring Cambria County several years ago.

The nine miners range in age from about 30 to their middle-50s, said a spokesman for Black Wolf Coal Co., which owns the mine. All are experienced miners.

Miner Ted Lepley, who works for Black Wolf Coal but was not on duty at the time of the accident, stood near the mine's entrance yesterday afternoon, awaiting word.

"Those are my brothers down there," Lepley said. "God help them. Nobody knows what's going on."

Drilling to reach the men began about 7:30 last night. How long the rescue mission would take was pure guesswork.

Sbaffoni estimated the effort would require 18 hours. Later yesterday, he backed off that somewhat, saying the process could be faster or slower, depending on how much resistance the 36-inch drill encountered.

Up to 150 relatives of the trapped miners huddled at the Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department near the mine, but state police would not allow reporters near the building. DEP Secretary David Hess said the families wanted privacy.

Pastors were with the families, and the hall had received so many food donations that the fire chief issued a plea for people to stop sending perishable goods.

Yesterday afternoon, the relatives were taken to the mine and briefed on the rescue efforts. "They could see and hear and feel what was going on," Hess said.

Schweiker visited the rescue site last night and met with the relatives. He said at a news briefing later that the relatives "are in a very fragile state."

A grim Schweiker professed optimism but said, "We may need a little help from the Almighty.

"We are bringing every asset that is necessary to complete this rescue operation. I know I speak for Pennsylvanians everywhere in saying we are concerned and offer our heartfelt support."

As the big drill plunged closer to the miners' chamber -- it had bored 45 feet down by 9 p.m. -- rescuers used care not to puncture an air bubble they had created to help the nine men breathe and keep the water away from them.

The bubble was formed by air pumped into the 6-inch hole. The air displaced water in the mine, giving the men breathing space.

But if the air bubble bursts, the water, estimated at 50 million gallons from the Saxon mine, which was abandoned in the 1950s, could rush back in.

"As long as we don't get a lot of water out of that pipe, we know it has not roofed yet," or filled the hole where the miners are trapped, Sbaffoni said. "We're trying to keep an air bubble."

The rescuers also used pumps to drain water from the mine, channeling it into a creek bed.

The main rescue drill, dismantled at a work site in Clarksburg, W.Va., and trucked in pieces to Somerset County, was re-erected in a nearby farm field.

The hole the drill cut was to be lined with a casing, leaving rescuers a 30-inch-diameter hole through which to lower a rescue basket.

"It could go pretty quickly," Schweiker said of the drilling. "It's moving along, and I think it's at a clip they didn't expect."

"We're anxious," said Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Zambanini. "You've got to keep a cool head. You've got to do the rescue in steps. You've got to do it right."

With each passing hour, though, the chances of survival lessened.

"It's a very ticklish situation we're in, very touch and go," said Hess, the DEP secretary.

The miners were trapped after they drilled into a nearby, abandoned mine that had filled with groundwater over the years. They were working in two groups of nine, and one group, alerted by radio by the other miners, got out of the mine as it filled with water.

"Some of the guys were able to get out and were wading in water up to their necks," said Alan Baumgardner, a Somerset County emergency dispatcher.

The two crews were about 240 feet underground and about a mile and a half from the entrance when they accidentally tunneled into the adjacent Saxman mine.

Hess said the crews had a map showing the Saxman mine's location and the fact that it was flooded. But they were taken by surprise when they opened a hole into the channel. State regulations require a 200-foot buffer between a new mine and an old mine.

"Mapping didn't show that particular passageway. Not all the maps are accurate," Hess said. "They thought they were 300 feet from the old mine."

Both groups of workers were about the same distance into the mine, but those who were trapped were at a lower elevation than the others.

Lori Arnold, whose farm sits above the mine, said the family dog, Pitch, awakened everyone in their house about 2 a.m. yesterday after hearing rescue workers outside.

The mine was being excavated using a technique in which miners remove sections of coal, leaving behind coal pillars to support the roof and control the flow of air. The rooms are often 20 to 30 feet wide.

In some mines, the pillars are removed, allowing the roof to collapse, when the coal is depleted.

Room-and-pillar mining continues to be common in underground mines because it is flexible and does not require large capital expenditures for equipment used in longwall mining, where huge machines shear coal seams much like a meat slicer.

Black Wolf Coal Co. received a permit to open a new shaft in March 1999 near an unnamed tributary of Quemahoning Creek. Mining began a year ago.

There had been at least one other accident at the mine, according to the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. No one was injured when a 40-by-30-foot section of the roof collapsed Oct. 17.

The company employs 50 to 75 non-union employees, who work three shifts and produce 50,000 tons of coal a month, said company spokesman John Weir.

The mine is just 10 miles northwest of the spot where hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Stricklin said the accident represents the largest number of unaccounted-for miners in Pennsylvania since 1962, when 37 people were killed at the Robena Mine in Carmichaels, Greene County.


Staff writers Tom Gibb, Jon Schmitz and Dennis B. Roddy contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.

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