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Final steps of rescue to be delicate, slow

Saturday, July 27, 2002

By Tom Gibb and Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

QUECREEK, Pa. -- The operation could start sometime after daylight this morning -- a capsule big enough to fit a hunkered-down man, likely carrying electronic sensors and communications equipment, will be lowered down a 30-inch-wide shaft, the first step in finding if somehow there is life among the nine men who were trapped Wednesday night in flooded Quecreek Mine.

It will be delicate, deliberate and slow.

Rescue workers pull the broken bit that delayed drilling in Rescue Shaft One and set back the effort to save nine workers trapped 240 feet below the surface in the Quecreek Mine. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

The men were stranded when the mining machine they were operating apparently breached a groundwater-filled stretch of a neighboring mine that was idled a half-century ago, sending at least 50 million gallons of water pouring into Quecreek Mine.

Since Thursday, rescuers have been trying to bore 240 feet down to the miners. Then they will delicately try to coax an entranceway into an air pocket that they hope they created with an unending blast of compressed air piped down a smaller hole -- a pocket that they hope allowed the miners to live in what amounts to an underground river.

Ray McKinney, administrator for coal with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said that if the job of boring down to the air pocket is finished early today -- a major uncertainty, given that the job stopped for about 19 hours yesterday when a 1,500-pound drill bit, the size of a 55-gallon drum, broke on rocks -- a metal capsule will be lowered down the shaft.

It will be about 24 inches in diameter, 92 inches long on the outside, lowered by crane like a sinker on a fishing line. And in its way, it will be like an interplanetary probe, sent to scope out conditions -- the concentrations of methane and oxygen in the air, for instance -- in a world rescuers aren't sure about right now.

The first trip down -- a slow, five-minute descent, according to estimates -- will carry no humans. The cargo will be air sensors and maybe a phone whose signal travels along the steel cable to the ground. There could be a strobe, a piercing light in the blackness of the mine shaft, in case the miners are conscious but located away from where the capsule comes down, McKinney said.

If there is anybody able to climb into the capsule, the miner and the gear might be too much to share quarters, the mining official said.

"But if they get in, they can throw the equipment on the ground, for all we care," he said.

Then, carrying a miner or still bearing only its equipment, the capsule will be raised, little more than inching its way up.

"We don't want it to swing," McKinney said.

If the capsule returns with no miner, he said, a rescue worker -- carrying self-contained breathing apparatus to allow him to function amid methane or other gas -- will be lowered, carrying a phone that would allow him to communicate with the surface.

From there could come the assessment rescuers have been working toward.

If rescue coordinators are right, the first person lowered from the surface should find what would look like an abnormality of physics -- a wall of water held back by pressurized air, said Joseph Sbaffoni, bituminous mining field operations chief with the state's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

And if Sbaffoni is right, that first person down from the surface will find surviving miners.

"Coal miners are a special breed," he told a press briefing Thursday. "If anybody can get through it, coal miners can."

In addition to medical units, special decompression chambers are standing by to treat the men once they are brought out of the flooded mine. A medical expert said the air pressure on the miners is similar to that experienced at 40 feet underwater.

He said that while they could remain in that environment for some time, they could suffer from the bends if decompressed too quickly.

At higher pressure, nitrogen and other gases in air dissolve more readily in the blood. If the pressure drops too quickly, some of the nitrogen cannot stay dissolved and may form small bubbles, which act like tiny clots in the blood stream.

"You can have stroke-like symptoms, abdominal pain because parts of the intestine might not be getting adequate blood flow because a bubble is blocking it, pain in your bones," said Dr. Donald Yealy, vice chairman of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

In a hyperbaric chamber, patients are completely enclosed in an atmosphere of oxygen at high pressure. The pressure is slowly lowered, giving nitrogen time to dissipate without forming bubbles.

Navy Capt. Henry Schwartz, a physician, said nine hyperbaric chambers have been brought to the rescue site so the miners can be decompressed after they are brought to the surface.

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