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Trapped miners all safe, sound in 'mine miracle'

Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Lawrence Walsh and Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

QUECREEK, Pa. -- All nine are alive.

With those words at 11:34 last night, Gov. Mark Schweiker broke the news that the world was hoping to hear.

Every man trapped Wednesday night in the Quecreek Mine had survived in the dark, flooded hole.

"It's an incredible development, an amazing development," Schweiker said, his eyes filled with tears.

Harry Blaine Mayhugh was the second of the nine trapped men to be hoisted out of Quecreek Mine this morning. (Steve Helber, AP photo)

Shortly before 1 a.m. today, 43-year-old Randall Fogle of Garrett, Somerset County, became the first of the miners returned to the surface in a 22-inch-wide rescue capsule. He complained of chest pain and was flown by helicopter to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

As the helicopter lifted off, cheers erupted from people watching the rescue effort from a nearby road.

"Woo, woo. There it goes," cried Pat Caldaroni of Lincoln, Somerset County. "That's one gone."

Just 15 minutes later, a second miner, Harry Mayhugh of Meyersdale, came up.

And in regular intervals, the other seven were raised to the surface, evaluated, and whisked to hospitals. All were out by 2:44 a.m.

Specially trained mine-rescue personnel were prepared to ride the capsule down to assist the miners, but their services below ground were not needed.

Officials said the miners basically decided on their own who among them would go up first, based on their conditions.

 
 
More on the rescue

Somerset County looked on hoping for the best

1977 mine rescue in Schuylkill County offered hope

Schweiker makes his mark as a spokesman

The chronology at Quecreek Mine

Photo gallery

   
 

About 10:15 last night, rescue workers drilled into the 4-foot-high shaft where the miners were trapped, and moments later contact was made with them.

Dave Laurinski, assistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said that shortly after drillers breached the mine, the operator at a smaller hole, bored to pump in compressed and heated air, heard tapping from below.

The whole rescue operation was shut down, and a two-way radio was lowered into the smaller hole.

"Someone picked it up, and we immediately had a conversation," Laurinski said. "We knew that we had all nine miners."

The miners, in addition to Fogle and Mayhugh, have been identified as Thomas Foy, 52, of Berlin; Ron Hileman of Gray; Dennis J. Hall, 49, of Johnstown; John Phillippi, 36, of Jenner; Mark Popernack, 41, of Somerset; Robert Pugh Jr., 50, of Stoystown; and John Unger, 52, of Holsopple.

Emergency physicians at Conemaugh said the miners survived because air heated to 100 degrees was pumped into the mine, staving off the chilling 55-degree temperature undergound.

Laurinksy injected a note of caution into an otherwise joyous news briefing before the extractions began.

Real danger existed, he warned, that the rescue shaft could collapse at anytime.

"This is a very risky operation," Laurinksy said. "We have a shaft that is not lined.

"We have to be very careful that we don't lose the integrity of that shaft. We want to make sure [the capsule] doesn't spin and doesn't do any damage to the walls of the shaft."

But the fears were unfounded, and the rescue went off without a hitch.

The effort also went much more quickly -- an average of 15 minutes apiece. Officials initially thought it would take an hour each.

At least two factors contributed to the fast pace of the rescue once the drill neared the miners' chamber.

One, the drill bit easily pierced shale during the last few feet, said David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Two, the water level in the mine dropped relatively quickly as a result of steady pumping, allowing drilling to resume early last night without risk of flooding the shaft, Laurinsky said.

The main mine tunnel had been flooded with more than 50 million gallons of water after the miners punctured an adjacent, abandoned mine Wednesday.

During the ensuing three days, rescue workers drilled two wide holes toward the mine while others set up pumps to lower the water level in the mine itself.

Word of the breakthrough filtered through a media-briefing area set up in an old Giant Eagle store five miles from Somerset even before the governor confirmed it.

Schweiker wanted to be sure the miners' relatives knew of the breakthrough and contact before he announced it to reporters.


 
 
Listen In

Gov. Mark Schweiker addresses the rescue workers after all nine trapped men were rescued from Quecreek Mine.
(1653K MP3)

Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Adminsitration, praises the rescue workers for not losing hope.
(718K MP3)

David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, talks to reporters about overcoming nagging doubts for more than three days.
(775K MP3)

This was the reaction from rescue workers as the last man emerged from the rescue tunnel at Quecreek Mine.
(287K MP3)

Earlier in the day, Gov. Schweiker announces all nine miners are alive in Quecreek Mine.
(933K MP3)


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At 11:27 p.m., Schweiker, his fist raised in victory, bounded into the media center. Six minutes later, to cheers, he confirmed that all nine men were alive.

"Nine for nine," he said, repeating the slogan he began using during his frequent talks with the miners' relatives over the past two days.

At the drilling site, rescue workers whooped for joy and danced with each other.

With the exception of one miner suffering some form of "heart stress," the trapped men were not only alive but well, Schweiker reported.

"They're eager to come up," the governor said.

At least 10 ambulances and 18 helicopters were standing by.

Schweiker had said earlier that the plan was to place each miner on a stretcher carried by six people, at least one of them a doctor.

The miners would be carried up a hill and placed in a decontamination tent, where special equipment would remove carbon from them. It could be necessary to place them in a hyperbaric chamber and that couldn't be done with carbon debris on them.

At that point, they would receive a thorough examination by Navy physicians and then it would be decided where they would be taken. Serious cases would either be flown by helicopter or driven by ambulance to Conemaugh; less serious ones would be taken to Somerset Hospital, Schweiker said.

Interviewed after the news briefing, Schweiker conceded he privately had felt "limited doubt" over the preceding three days that the miners would be found alive.

"What kept me going was the sizable and impressive enterprise that included the best equipment, the best minds and [superior] technology," the governor said.

The breakthrough capped three days of starts and stops.

Drilling was halted in the second shaft yesterday after one of its stabilizers broke. Ground for the second shaft was broken early Friday, after the drill bit broke in the first shaft, putting it out of commission for most of that day.

Drilling stopped in the main shaft for 37 minutes last night after an airtight seal around it broke.

But the drilling resumed about 9 p.m., gouging away the last 15 feet into the mine in 75 minutes.

The drama began Wednesday night, when two nine-member gangs of miners accidentally bored into the abandoned Saxman Mine, flooding Quecreek Mine with more than 50 million gallons of water.

The Saxman Mine hadn't been active in decades, and it had filled with groundwater through the years. Quecreek maps mistakenly showed the abandoned mine to be farther away.

Rescue drilling had to be suspended from time to time over the three days while pumps drew water out of the Quecreek Mine at a rate of up to 24,000 gallons per minute.

Yesterday afternoon, after one of the halts in drilling, Schweiker said the pumping crew was trying to get the water level down by another 6 inches

Drilling in the second shaft had stopped by that time, 195 feet below ground, or about 50 feet from the miners, because of the broken stabilizer.

In the primary shaft, drilling was stopped at 8:20 p.m. to repair a broken seal, and it started again about 9 p.m., just 15 feet from the miners' chamber.

It resumed at a slow place to protect an air pocket in the mine. That air obviously kept the men alive in their low chamber.

"There is inherent danger in this rescue attempt," Schweiker said earlier yesterday. "It's probably been 30 years since this [type of] rescue attempt has been made. It argues for caution and slowing a little bit."

When the drill in the first shaft finally broke into the chamber, much work remained before miners could be extracted.

First, the drill bit itself had to be removed from the shaft. Then a crane was moved into place to lower the rescue capsule.

The 22-inch-wide basket then was raised back to ground level with one of the miners inside.

The process was repeated nine times, once for each miner.

A nine-man volunteer rescue team from Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc. also had assembled at the site. The team members all work at the Enlow Fork Mine in Greene County.

Jack Holt, Consol vice president of safety and human resources, said the team is among the best of its kind in the nation.

Its members "practice constantly," although a descent in a capsule would be new territory for them, Holt said.

"They're very psyched about being able to provide this kind of service," he said.

"I said, 'Hey, it's game time, who's good to go?" Schweiker said. "And they're all good to go."

While the rescuers readied, so did a fleet of nine medical helicopters and another nine Pennsylvania National Guard choppers that could ferry out the injured.

They were to be taken on a 10-minute ride to the regional trauma center at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, state officials said.

Five miles of air space over the Quecreek area was to be closed, state the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Schweiker, at his 6 p.m. press briefing, put up a brave front when asked about the likelihood that any miners were still alive.

"If there's any slogan, it's 'Nine for Nine,' " he said. "We're bringing out nine of our guys."

"It's in our favor," he continued. "Just call it a sixth sense, but the circumstances just seem to be assembling in our favor."

He was right.

Schweiker said he and other state officials had conducted regular briefings at the Sipesville firehouse, where the miners' family members were being kept in seclusion.

The governor said a communications link had been established between the rescue site and the firehouse to keep the families apprised of developments as the drill neared the mine chamber.

Asked about the family members' states of mind before the miners were found alive, he said, "They may be fretful over the pace but they understand and accept it."

The governor said a counselor had been assigned to each family.

Wilbert Foy, 47, whose brother, Thomas Foy, 51, and nephew, Blaine Mayhew, were trapped below, remained confident.

"They'll pull all nine of them out, one by one," Foy said last night before the rescue.

Mine experts said that drilling, though slow, was the best way to reach the men. They said sending divers through coal pillar catacombs flooded with debris-filled water was too dangerous.

At the rescue site, other miners waited nervously while the rescue attempt dragged on.

Burning through what must have been dozens of cigarettes yesterday morning, Jim Weiland surveyed the scene with eyes bleary from two sleepless nights and a heavy heart knowing that members of his mining "family" were trapped below the very spot where he stood.

"How can I sleep when I know my brothers are down there?" he said.

Back at the site for the third straight day, another miner, Doug Custer, pondered the twist of fate that kept him from being among the trapped group.

Custer was at work late Wednesday in a different section of the Quecreek mine when the water rushed in.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said with a note of despondence. His group of nine miners was warned by the trapped ones to get out before the gushing water penned them in, too.

Weiland and Custer, miners for more than two decades, have worked with some of the trapped men for their entire careers.

"I believe in miracles," Weiland said. "Put faith in God and anything can come through."

Since early Thursday, both men have been a fixture at the rescue site, helping to comfort family members at the scene and acting as a liaison between workers at the site and family members holding vigil at the nearby Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department.

"The kids, the smaller ones, they don't understand," Weiland said. "They've been asking when their daddies are coming home."

Staff writers Jeffrey Cohan, Dan Gigler, Bill Heltzel, Johnna A. Pro and Milan Simonich contributed to this report, along with The Associated Press.

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