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Newsmaker / Expert puts mine situation in plain English

Saturday, July 27, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

QUECREEK, Pa. -- Joseph Sbaffoni is the state government's coolest hand during these desperate hours.

Joseph Sbaffoni expains to reporters how the miners were trapped during a news conference on Thursday. Sbaffoni, who has worked for 32 years in the mining industry, said he has never seen a case to equal the scope of what's going on in Somerset County. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Nine miners are trapped 240 feet underground in a flooded shaft. The mammoth effort to dig them out is two days old, and no one can be certain if rescue teams will break through the rocky surface in time to bring them out alive.

Several times each day, Gov. Mark Schweiker does his best to provide relatives and the public with updates about the crisis and rescue mission.

For expertise and details, Schweiker leans on Sbaffoni, a deep-mine safety expert with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"Joe is invaluable," Schweiker said. "He's the guy who can provide us with the plain English about what's happening."

Sbaffoni, 50, has worked 32 years in the mining industry. He has never seen a case like this one.

"There is nothing to equal the scope of what's going on here," he said yesterday.

The water-logged mine and the depth that must be traveled to reach the men -- nearly the length of a football field -- make the Quecreek Mine rescue the challenge of a lifetime, he said.

Schweiker leads off every press briefing with the newest developments. But he often cedes the microphone to Sbaffoni, saying "Joe can explain this better than I can."

Sbaffoni admits that standing in front of the hot television lights makes him nervous. So do the hundred-plus reporters from New York, Atlanta, Baltimore and all across Pennsylvania who are peppering him with questions.

Joseph Sbaffoni

dot.gif DATE OF BIRTH: Aug. 8. 1951

dot.gif PLACE OF BIRTH: Harmarville

dot.gif NOW LIVES IN: Fairchance, Fayette County

dot.gif IN THE NEWS: One of the state government's mining experts, Sbaffoni is a key player in rescue efforts to save nine coal miners who are trapped in Somerset County.

dot.gif EDUCATION: Graduated from Springdale High School in 1970; bachelor's degree in mining technology from Penn State University, 1973.

dot.gif FAMILY: He and his wife, Gloria, have two grown daughters.


Any apprehension or annoyance he's felt has not been detected by the cameras. On air, he has been unflappable, no matter how repetitive or silly the question.

For instance, Sbaffoni has been grilled two days in a row about why divers had not been sent into the flooded shafts to try to reach the miners. Wouldn't such a strategy make more sense than a time-consuming attempt to drill through 240 feet of rock?

No diver, he replied, could swim underground through the 8,000-foot mining course and be of any help to the stranded men, even if he reached them. Such an idea, Sbaffoni said with a hint of irritation, would place a diver at death's door and do nothing to free the miners.

"I guess I don't look nervous up there because this is what I know," Sbaffoni said of the mining industry.

A native of Springdale, he graduated from Penn State University in 1973 with a degree in mining technology. He spent 15 years working for coal companies before going to work for state government in 1984.

Sbaffoni, based in Uniontown, began as a mine inspector and rose to division chief of bituminous mine safety. Bituminous coal is a Western Pennsylvania product; anthracite coal is generally associated with the eastern part of the state.

The technical terms of mining can cause well-educated heads to spin. That is just as well, for Sbaffoni prefers to talk about people. After all, that is what his job in mine safety is really about.

"When coal miners are in trouble, other coal miners respond," he said. "It's a hard job. The people in it look out for each other."

Schweiker said he has been stirred by families of the trapped miners. "They know it's dirty work. They know it's unsafe."

But, the governor added, mining is the way they make their living, so they accept a life of danger and "endless darkness."

Sbaffoni said hard questions and a thorough investigation on how this mine accident happened are ahead.

Already, his agency has found that inaccurate maps may have contributed to mistakes that caused the Quecreek mine to be flooded by a nearby mine that had been abandoned in the 1950s.

But Sbaffoni had bigger concerns.

"We need to get these guys out. We can deal with the investigation later."

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