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State begins investigation of trapping of miners

Monday, July 29, 2002

QUECREEK, Pa. -- Nine rescued coal miners awoke yesterday to their first daylight since being trapped Wednesday night inside a flooded Somerset County mine, a near-fatal accident now under investigation on orders of Gov. Mark Schweiker.

Joseph Sbaffoni, bituminous mining field operations chief with the state's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, said, "Every time I think about it I get broken up. It's unbelievable." (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

At the same time, those who saved them and those who prayed for them reflected on the remarkable triumph of engineering, technology and, most significantly, the human spirit.

"It's a great morning," proclaimed a beaming but tired David Hess, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, one of the key state officials during the ordeal that ended so dramatically.

Only hours after the 78-hour ordeal ended at 2:45 a.m. yesterday, when the last of the trapped miners was pulled 240 feet to safety up a drilled rescue shaft, the news continued to amaze. So well had the miners come through the ordeal that six of them were released from hospitals.

Those still hospitalized in Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown were Randy Fogle, 43, of Garrett, and Thomas Foy, 52, Berlin, both being treated for heart conditions, and John Unger, 52, of Hollsopple, who is being treated for a sore shoulder. They were expected to be released today.

 
 

This article was written by Post-Gazette Staff Writer Michael A. Fucoco based on his reporting and that of staff writers Tom Gibb and Johnna A. Pro.

   
 

The other miners released from either Somerset Hospital or Conemaugh Memorial were Harry Blaine Mayhugh, 31, of Meyersdale, Foy's son-in-law; John Phillippi, 36, of Jenner; Ronald Hileman, of Gray; Dennis Hall, 49, of Johnstown; Robert Pugh Jr., 50, of Stoystown; and Mark Popernack, 41, of Somerset.

John Moryken, an administrator at Conemaugh Memorial, said the men treated there were tired and overwhelmed, but happy.

"They look great. Their spirits are high. They're clutching their families," he said.

Schweiker, who visited with each of the men, said, "These are nine rugged individuals who prevailed against all odds. They are strong Pennsylvania miners and they got out.

"They are boundlessly grateful for the response and the deployment," he added. "These are humble people. They are not going to provide a lot of commentary."

Even as officials said the rescue, unprecedented in the United States, had written a "new chapter" in such operations and as cleanup efforts continued at the rescue site, Schweiker ordered an investigation into what had happened and why.

"We've got to get to the bottom of it," Schweiker said. "I've already instructed the Departmental of Environmental Protection to do that."

Under state law, coal mining companies must maintain a 200-foot barrier between old mines and new dig sites. Based on the maps they were using, some decades old, the miners thought they were 300 feet from the Saxman mine, well outside the required buffer zone.

"We can't have companies or miners using old maps," Schweiker said. "We've got to find out why 18 Pennsylvanians almost lost their lives because of the inadequacy of a map."

Others theorized geological shifts or even coal thieves who dug unmapped chambers could be to blame.

Schweiker said the investigation may take several avenues, including trying to determine if modern technology -- not old maps -- should be used by mining companies to plot the exact location and status of previously dug mine sites.

"Let's find out. Perhaps I'll call it an exploration, too -- no pun intended -- but let's explore it. Let's investigate," Schweiker said.

No matter where you looked yesterday in Somerset County, the joy, gratitude and relief at the dramatic rescue were palpable. A sign at a Jennerstown restaurant had read "Pray for the Miners and Their Families" on Saturday; yesterday, it had been changed to read "Our Awesome Prayers Answered -- Nine for Nine." A local McDonald's posted a sign that read: "Great job rescue team." Whitetail Renovations displayed a sign reading: "Welcome back miners! Nine alive."

The ordeal began shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday when a mining machine 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.

The crew operating that machine alerted another crew in a different part of the mine.

Hess called them heroes.

"The first thing they did when the water was gushing in was phone the other guys and say 'Get out of here. Get out of here,' " he said. "They saved the other guys' lives."

Such unselfishness is particularly resonant in this tightly knit, usually quiet rural community which, for the second time in a year, had been thrust onto the world's stage. It was only 10 miles northwest of the mine that United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11 when passengers who overtook the hijackers sacrificed their own lives to save others.

The parallel -- and divine intervention -- was on the minds of Kevin and Frances Seifert, who walked hand in hand yesterday outside the media center in an old Giant Eagle store five miles from Somerset.

"As they were digging for [the miners] they found the hearts of Flight 93," said Kevin Seifert, who, with his wife, is a lifelong resident of Somerset. "If you don't believe in God when you come to Somerset, you will when you leave. I knew they'd make it."

"Strong hearts," his wife added.

Among those overcome by what many deemed a miraculous outcome was Joseph Sbaffoni, bituminous mining field operations chief with the state's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

During the ordeal, Sbaffoni appeared at media updates bearing a steely resolve and determination. When the men were rescued, he broke down in tears.

"Every time I think about it I get broken up. It's unbelievable," Sbaffoni said as he yanked out a handkerchief to dry his eyes.

He conceded that officials had been told by medical personnel that the odds the men would be able to survive in the flooded 55-degree mine shaft were but 1 in 10.

Moreover, Sbaffoni and Hess said the miners would have drowned in the rising waters had officials not succeeded at 3:30 a.m. Thursday in punching a 6-inch air shaft into the mine. That air pushed back the water, creating a warm envelope so the men could survive.

Sbaffoni noted that not long after they began pumping air into the chamber, officials avoided a fatal mistake. They had considered shutting off the air momentarily and dropping down communications equipment. They now know that had they done so at that juncture, they would have inadvertently allowed the water to overtake the men, drowning them.

"It all worked out," Hess reflected yesterday. "The drilling went at the right time, the water level dropped at the right time. Obviously, we would have liked to have gotten them out sooner, but looking back, the time worked out very, very well."

The fact that rescuers so accurately drilled into the area where the miners were located was a testament to the expertise of state and federal mine safety officials, Hess said.

He called such pinpoint accuracy "a one-in-a-million shot" because they had a one-square mile area in which the miners were believed to be located. They succeeded in narrowing it down by thinking "where would I go if I was in that mine."

Duane Yost, of Gene D. Yost Drilling Co. of Mount Morris, Greene County, said the machine operators who worked 12-hour shifts beginning Thursday drilling the 26-inch-wide rescue shaft were told "this is the most important hole you'll ever drill."

"Call it the miracle hole," said John Hamilton of Fairview, W.Va., the Yost equipment operator who sank the drill into the mine at 10:15 p.m. Saturday that opened the rescue passageway.

"I don't think it will get any better than this," the red-and-gray-bearded Hamilton said with a West Virginia drawl.

By the time Hamilton was within a few delicate feet of the trapped miners, he had a knot in his stomach and "everybody was getting nervous." He was worried about drilling an adequate hole for the capsule. "That sucker is 22 inches [in diameter] and if the shaft isn't perfectly straight, if there's a crook in it, it won't go down there."

Hamilton said that when he saw the capsule bring up the first miner, Fogle, he wiped tears from his eyes as cheers erupted.

Similar celebrations occurred with the emergence of each miner. Bill Arnold, on whose farm the rescue shaft was drilled, said the wet, soot-covered miners "looked as if they had been dipped in ink, cold and hungry, but there was no quit in any of them."

Nor in their rescuers.

"We rewrote a huge chapter of mine safety techniques," Hess said. "This will be one of those case studies that people will use for a long period of time.

"There are very few instances of using compressed air. The cooperation of the state and federal [agencies] and the mine operator was outstanding. The [Special Medical Rescue Team] was used for the first time in a major rescue operation.

"This really tested a lot of things and they worked and they worked well."


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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