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Rescue drilling continues after day of setbacks

Saturday, July 27, 2002

QUECREEK, Pa. -- Rescuers trying to save nine coal miners trapped 240 feet below ground continued working to reach them through daybreak this morning, racing to make up for time lost in yesterday's agonizing setbacks to efforts to drill a vertical escape shaft through earth and rock.

Still without any new indications that the miners were alive, officials continued to profess optimism even as much of yesterday slipped away with little progress toward reaching the men.

Local firefighters and residents watch the rescue effort yesterday at the Quecreek mining accident site where work continued today in hopes of reaching nine miners trapped below ground since Wednesday night. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

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Graphic: Rescuing the trapped miners

Photo gallery

Graphic: Race to save the miners, in .pdf format.

Download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the file.

As the sun came up at the drilling site today, workers nearing the end of a 12 hour shift looked fatigued and solemn but continued to press on through physical and emotional strain.

One of the workers, Don Bowman, of the Gene Yost Drilling Co. of Mount Morris, Pa., said that despite yesterday's setbacks and exhaustion the crews' morale remained high.

Bowman, his clothes, boots and face caked with mud from the work at the massive drilling station at Rescue Shaft One, spoke briefly during a quick break to get coffee for his co workers.

Bowman said the team at Rescue Shaft One had driven down to a depth about 115 feet by around 6:30 a.m. this morning.

"We're just doing what it takes to get the job done and we hope that it turns out all right," he said.

Close by at Rescue Shaft Two, a second team continued their own labors to cut a passageway down to the cavity thought to harbor the miners trapped by flood waters in the Quecreek coal mine Wednesday night. Officials said the shaft had reached the depth of 155 feet this morning.

The cacaphony of the drills pounding through the rock below have made hearing taps from the miners virtually impossible, officials said. although experts with seismic equipment continue to monitor for any signals from below.

Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker visited with the drilling teams several times throughout the night. Also visiting were observers for the miners' families, mindful of the passing hours and praying for the best possible outcome.

A tangible sign of the continued hope for rescue was preparation work this morning on the capsule which would be lowered down a completed shaft to the underground location of the miners. Emergency medical personnel also remained at the ready at the drill site.

Yesterday a colossal mechanical setback wiped out a promising start to the drilling of a 30-inch pipeline to the spot in the flooded mine where the miners are thought to be.

A super drill had bored 105 feet into the ground when its bit broke about 1:50 a.m., causing the rescue to come to a torturous halt.

"For 10 hours, we got nowhere," Schweiker said during an afternoon news conference yesterday at which he broke down and cried.

The delay would stretch to 19 hours before drilling resumed around 8 last night.

Unable at first to extract the bit from the hole, rescuers scrambled to start a new shaft about 75 feet away from the first. As of 10 last night, that shaft was about 48 feet into the ground.

Things were so grim that when the workers finally succeeded in wresting the broken bit from the first shaft, Schweiker hailed it as a "wonderful development" and announced the news to anxious relatives who were continuing their vigil at a nearby fire hall.

"They needed it," Schweiker said. "Their take on things is that it's going painfully slow. There was a lot of cheering but then it calmed right back down. It was time to be sober-minded again. We've got a long way to go, a lot of work to be done."

The miners have been stranded in the dark, flooded Somerset County mine since about 9 p.m. Wednesday, when a crew accidentally drilled into a neighboring, abandoned mine that was filled with water, causing millions of gallons to pour into the Quecreek Mine.

There have been no signs of life from within the mine since Thursday, when officials believed they heard tapping on an air pipe they had lowered to where the miners were thought to be.

That was shortly before noon, and seismic sensors detected sounds that could have been from the men at 3 p.m.

The seismic equipment was tried again yesterday, without conclusive results. Officials noted that the site was so noisy with drilling and other equipment that sounds from within the mine might have been drowned out.

"It certainly is disheartening after the distinct communication we had [Thursday], but you have to remain optimistic," said Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The trapped miners

Thomas Foy, 51, of Berlin

Randall Fogle, 43, of Garrett

Ronald Hileman of Gray

Blaine Mayhew, late 20s, of Meyersdale

David Mullen of Gray

John Phillippi of Gray

Mark Popernack of Somerset

Robert Pugh, 50, of Ferrelton

John Unger, 52, of Gray


Schweiker said a "remarkable assembly of high-powered equipment" -- millions of dollars worth of it -- was at the site. "We're doing everything we can with all the equipment that can be mustered."

The miners, all from Pennsylvania, are believed to be trapped in a 4-foot-high chamber, possibly in an air pocket, where the temperature is estimated to be 55 degrees. They probably have not had food or light for more than two days, though a current of hot air is being piped into the chamber.

They are Ronald Hileman of Gray, Robert "Boogie" Pugh, 50, of Ferrelton, John Phillippi of Gray, John Unger, 52, of Gray, Thomas Foy, 51, of Berlin and his son-in-law, Blaine Mayhew of Meyersdale, Randall Fogle of Garrett, David Mullen of Gray and Mark Popernack of Somerset.

Friends and relatives described the men as a strong bunch, experienced mine hands and well-accustomed to harsh life underground.

"They say if anyone can get out, it's that crew," said Lori Supanick, a neighbor of both Hileman and Phillippi in the small mining village of Gray.

Phillippi is married and has a young son, she said. His wife has been at the rescue site for two days, but remains hopeful and in good spirits, Supanick said. She described Hileman as an avid sportsman who often regales children at his wife's day care center with hunting tales.

John Unger raises cattle on a small farm as well as working his job at the mine, his mother said.

"He is a workaholic. He's always been that way," said Mary Unger, 87. "He's the kind of person who is always quick to help people, too."

One of Fogle's cousins, who asked that his name not be used, said Fogle was in his early 40s and has a wife and three children.

Foy's sister, Neva Glassner, 40, of Garrett, said her brother was the group's crew leader. She described him as an outdoorsman. She said Mayhew was in his late 20s.

Hypothermia, a drastic lowering of the body temperature, was a threat to the miners. Nobody was guessing how long the men could survive in the mine, because nobody knows how much cold water they are in.

Authorities believed that the compressed air being pumped into the chamber, which was about 100 degrees, might warm the men.

It might prevent the hypothermia from getting worse, but probably won't do much else, said Dr. Donald Yealy, vice chairman of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

This story was the work of Post-Gazette staff writers Dan Gigler, Milan Simonich, Tom Gibb, Cindi Lash, Lawrence Walsh, Bob Batz Jr. and Anita Srikameswaran. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

"I suspect that it would take the edge off but not fix it completely," he said. "It is very difficult with warmed gases to change the temperature of a large body of water or of people's bodies."

Water temperature, degree and duration of immersion, pre-existing medical conditions and injuries suffered in the accident are all factors that can influence hypothermia survival rates.

Emergency teams are confident the spot they are drilling to is accurate because of crude communication they had with the miners about noon Thursday.

It happened after a 6-inch pipe was bored into the mine. The pipe's purpose was to funnel warm air to the men to make their circumstances more bearable. Rescue teams tapped three times on the pipe after inserting it. In return, they received a like number of taps.

The drill bit used to start the rescue shaft weighed about 1,500 pounds and is the size of a 55-gallon drum.

After it broke, efforts to remove it were hampered because the threading on it had been stripped away by the rock into which it bored.

As hours passed without progress, Schweiker met with relatives of the trapped miners and later described them as hopeful but in a state of high anxiety.

Police have sequestered the families in a firehouse to keep reporters away from them, but Schweiker and other state officials have been with them numerous times. Schweiker said he twice prayed with them.

"We are doing everything mechanically, humanly, intellectually and technologically that we can," he said at one point, his eyes full of tears.

A counselor who met with the relatives, Kathy Unger, community response coordinator for the Bedford County-Somerset County Mental Health/Mental Retardation program, described a hard situation made harder for the relatives when hopes rose and fell early yesterday.

"It's just a real difficult time when they're so hopeful and then this happens," she said of the drill bit failure. "And now time is just running out. They're exhausted, that's for sure."

Joseph Sbaffoni, bituminous mining field operations chief with the state's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, an arm of the Department of Environmental Protection, has been in the mining industry for 29 years but has never seen a case like this one.

He said it was unusual to have to tunnel almost the length of a football field into a flooded mine. He called it the challenge of a lifetime, and said he remained optimistic that the work would be successful.

Sbaffoni said rescuers want to be aggressive without being foolhardy.

For that reason, he said, they did not want to drop a phone down the 6-inch-wide air shaft that had been drilled through to the mine. Such a move might disrupt the air flow or pierce the air bubble that might be protecting the miners, he said.

He also dismissed suggestions that divers could reach the miners, noting the men are more than a mile from the mine entrance portal and debris in the water poses an unacceptable danger.

The trapped miners are believed to be in an air pocket 1,830 feet above sea level. The pressurized air being pumped in through the 6-inch` pipe is keeping the water from rising near the men, officials believe, and they don't want to disturb that pocket until the water level in the mine drops below 1,830 feet. The water level, which had been as high as 1,859 feet when the mine first flooded, was at 1,835 feet as of 10 p.m. and was still dropping, officials said.

As of last night, the water level was dropping but was still above that threshold.

Sbaffoni said the miners are likely wet, cold and in the dark in more ways than one. He reiterated his belief that the miners were huddled in an air pocket that might have been created by rescuers forcing air through the initial six-inch pipe.

He said he wasn't giving up hope simply because of a lack of sounds coming from within the mine. He suggested a scenario in which conscious miners are probably sitting in the cold and damp but moving very little.

"They're probably not doing much of anything," he said. "They're probably doing as little as possible but trying to keep warm and probably they have their headlamps out, all of them out."

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