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Chapter Four

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The rescue begins

Dave Rebuck, the owner of Black Wolf Coal Co., which mines Quecreek, was getting ready for bed just before 9 p.m. Wednesday when his wife Annette handed him the phone.

It was the mine's "outside guy," the miner who stays above in case something happens. Something had.

Robert Long of Civil Mining Environmental Engineering Inc. used global satellite positioning equipment and a map of the Quecreek Mine to guide rescuers in drilling a six-inch hole to quickly get air to the miners trapped underground. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

A breached wall. A flooding mine. Men possibly trapped.

Rebuck drove the 30 minutes to the mine and called state and federal officials. That set in motion emergency workers, including the state's deep-mining safety expert, Joe Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni loves miners. Tough as a boot and straight as a string, they are the best part of his job with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Four days shy of 51, Sbaffoni has 32 years' experience in coal mining, the last 18 with state government. None of it prepared him for the call about the Quecreek flood.

He was sitting at his kitchen table in Fairchance in Fayette County about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday when his district mine manager, Lynn Jamison, telephoned. Nine men were missing.

"My heart stopped," Sbaffoni said.

He hurried to Uniontown for a meeting with Richard Stickler, director of the state's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, and mining engineers Bill Bookshar and Tom McKnight. They studied maps and then headed for Quecreek to start what they hoped would be a rescue mission.

At 9:53 p.m., Somerset County's 911 center got a call requesting an ambulance at the mine. Soon after, word about the trapped men reached law officers.

The job of telephoning the families of missing miners fell to State Police Cpl. Robert Barnes Jr.

He was brief and businesslike. An "incident" had happened in the mine, he said, volunteering no details. We'd like your family to come to the Sipesville firehouse, where we will tell you more.

Barnes, 47, has been stationed at the Somerset Barracks for 18 years. He has seen his share of unexpected death, usually from car crashes. In those cases, he found it easier to console families if he had a clergyman at his side.

He made hundreds of decisions the night Quecreek mine flooded. Perhaps none was more important than his bringing the miners' families together and having ministers on hand to comfort them. He called his friend and pastor, Barry Ritenour, who has two United Methodist churches in Somerset County, to ask a favor. Could he spend the night at the firehouse with the families?

By then it was 11 p.m. and Ritenour had just climbed into bed. He told Barnes he would make the 15-minute drive as soon as he got dressed. Barnes felt better. He had no sense of whether the miners were alive, but he knew that Ritenour would be a soothing presence.

Ritenour wanted to make certain that families did not arrive at the firehouse only to find it empty. So he called another pastor, Joseph Beer of Laurel Mountain United Church of Christ. Beer lives so close to the firehouse that he could walk there in two minutes.

Beer arrived before anyone. He stood alone for a while in the century-old building, which once was a school. Then the families began to troop in.

They seemed shell-shocked, but questions abounded. Answers were harder to come by.

In those first desperate hours, nobody from Black Wolf Coal Co. or mine-safety agencies could speak to the most critical question -- whether the men had survived the onrushing waters and found a sanctuary in the mine.

Ritenour saw a room full of sad faces when he reached the firehouse. Then he noticed one woman with a perpetual smile. She was Susan Unger, wife of miner John Unger.

As the hours stretched on, many in the firehouse would lose their composure and lash out at somebody in frustration. Susan Unger never did.

She has multiple sclerosis and needed a walker to move about the room, but she radiated optimism.

"I know they're going to come out," she told the others.

Her resolve set a tone. They had to believe.

Few reporters had yet assembled around Quecreek, but Barnes knew they would be coming in droves. He wanted the families sequestered in the firehouse for many reasons. For one, he knew police would restrict access to the building, thereby sparing families from incessant interview requests.

Beyond that, he thought the families might draw strength from one another and the pastors, whose number would grow to eight -- one for each church the nine families attended.

He decided to put the media outside Casebeer Lutheran Church, a couple of miles from the firehouse. But he soon switched the media headquarters to a parking lot at a closed Giant Eagle, which was nearer to restaurants and motels and had ample space for the hulking satellite trucks that would beam the miners' story around the world.

PREPARING TO DRILL: With a six-inch hole dug and compressors blasting air to the trapped miners, rescuers began the arduous task of preparing to dig the first rescue hole. "It takes time to set the casing. It takes time to set the rig in place. It takes time to set up all the air compressors that the rig requires. It's agonizing. The time just seemed to crawl. It seemed like it took forever to do anything with those guys under there waiting for us. We knew they were alive. Seconds seem like hours," said Joe Gallo, an engineer at the site. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Barnes also sent a state trooper to the road leading to Quecreek Mine. He wanted it kept clear for emergency workers and vehicles bringing rescue equipment.

Danny Sacco, president of the Indiana County-based Special Medical Response Team, was in one such SUV. He and Dr. Jim Dixon had loaded it with their best guess of what might be needed immediately. The big trucks with the rest of their equipment would arrive 40 minutes behind them.

While Sacco drove, Dixon got more information from the Somerset 911 center. Having been told there was a mine accident, they had assumed there was a fire or cave-in causing burns and crush injuries, not flooding and hypothermia.

The Quecreek situation was dire. Sacco thought, "This is not going to be a rescue, it's going to be a body recovery."

But he also told himself, "We have to do whatever we can to give these guys the best possible shot."

As Barnes covered every base outside the mine, company executives and government mine experts were planning the rescue mission.

Their first step was to pinpoint the location of the stranded men.

Mine operator Dave Rebuck had set up a command center in his office 200 yards from the mine portal. There they had enough room to spread out maps showing the 8,000-foot Quecreek Mine's passages. John Urosek and Kevin Stricklin, of the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety Health Administration, said everyone agreed the men would find high ground. It was that simple: They had to keep their heads above water.

After narrowing down the location with common sense, they turned to science to make sure they would hit a central part of the mine shaft with an air pipe. Using global positioning satellites, they determined that the drill site should be on a patch of the Arnold family farm.

In a strange way, they felt confident. They believed they had found the miners. Now they had to set them free.

This first line would funnel fresh, 190-degree air to the men. It might also offset some effects of the cold water the miners were sitting in. Water temperature was estimated at 55 degrees. Because the mine shafts are so low, the miners could not stand.

Rescuers feared they were hunched in water to their chests or higher, a circumstance that could drop body temperatures to dangerous levels below 95 degrees.

Along with getting fresh air to the men, they knew they would have to bore other holes to pump water out of the mine. Black Wolf Coal Co. workers began waking up anybody with a pump and hunting for drills capable of boring 300 feet into the ground.

Workers at Somerset's 911 center joined in the search. They realized it would be fruitless to call drilling companies, all of which had long ago closed for the night. So they improvised.

Dispatcher Jeremy Coughenour, 28, remembered that his old Sunday school teacher, Judy Bird, ran a drilling business. He called her at her home. Bird, her husband, Paul, and their three daughters, ages 16, 18 and 21, hustled to the mine, where they would set up a drill to bore one of the holes for water removal.

The critical job of drilling the 6-inch air hole went to a company owned by Louis Bartles of Somerset. His four-member team started working about 3:15 a.m. Thursday.

Its drill cracked through the mine shaft 1 hour and 45 minutes later -- a blistering clip for obliterating what turned out to be 240 feet of rock.

Alex Nicoletti, 33, ran the drill with the right mix of urgency and restraint. Had he pushed the pace any harder, he could have destroyed the drill and the rescue would have stumbled before it could start.

With the air pipe inserted in the mine, rescue workers tapped on it. Minutes passed. Then, in answer, they received nine strong bangs on the pipe. Could it be? Was this tapping at 5:15 a.m. a signal that all nine were alive, or had one of the miners coincidentally smacked the pipe nine times? More tapping back and forth. But the signals were inconclusive.

Nobody above ground knew for sure, but hopes soared. They were almost certain all nine were alive.

Knowing that someone was alive made it paramount to stop the rising water, which monitors showed was approaching 1,825 feet above sea level. At that rate, rescuers knew they had perhaps an hour before the area where the miners had taken refuge would be under water.

Sbaffoni saw another problem. A blast of "bad air," containing low oxygen levels, had shot out of the mine when the drill broke through. He worried that, before long, the miners might have trouble breathing.

Urosek, a mine ventilation expert, saw this as an opening to raise an idea. Air pockets sometimes exist in flooded caves. Why not create an air pocket in the mine? That would mean pumping compressed air through the bore hole to press against the water and prevent it from rising.

Urosek's plan had never been tested in the United States, but he urged the others to back him.

"Nobody was screaming or yelling, or saying 'John, that's just stupid,'" Stricklin said. "But there was some skepticism."

State mine engineer McKnight thought Urosek's idea would work. He whipped out a calculator to determine how many pounds per square inch of pressure would be necessary to keep water out of the miners' haven.

They ordered the hole sealed. Then they told the drill operator to crank up his rig's air compressor, which could maintain 100 pounds per square inch at about 1,000 cubic feet per minute.

The amount was excessive, but rescuers were not sure if they could close the hole tightly. Better to have plenty of pressure, knowing that some of the air would leak.

Shortly before 6 a.m., Sbaffoni explained the plan to workers at the drill site. Volunteer firefighters sealed the hole around the air compressor pipe by inserting sturdy bags normally used to lift wrecked vehicles off people. The experts and those doing the dirty work were becoming a team.

Now Gov. Mark Schweiker was about to become its leader.

In the next three days, he would serve as the state's chief spokesman on the rescue, a job that transformed him into the nation's most recognizable governor outside of Minnesota's Jesse Ventura and Florida's Jeb Bush.

Schweiker did not intend it to happen that way until he walked into the firehouse Thursday to meet the families.

"They needed to know their governor was going to stick it out," he said. "It's my state. These are my people."

So Schweiker, who ascended from lieutenant governor 10 months ago and is not running for election this year, stepped onto a world stage for the first time.

When he faced the press Thursday afternoon, his usual business suit, starched white shirt and spiffy necktie were nowhere to be found. Schweiker switched to jeans and chambray shirts, enabling him to crawl into the muck with rescue teams.

With the air passage in place, crews focused on preparing the ground for about 10 additional drills that would accommodate water pumps. In the meantime, Gene D. Yost Drilling Co. of Mt. Morris in Greene County talked to coal company executives about using a "super drill" to create an escape tunnel for the miners. With a 1,500-pound bit, the super drill could smash through the 240 feet of stubborn earth and create a wide enough chute to bring the men up, said company executive Duane Yost.

The bit was in Greene County, and the drill rig was at another job in Clarksburg, W. Va. It would take hours to haul the equipment to Somerset County.

For a while, mine-safety workers toyed with the idea of sending divers into the mine. They might be able to organize such a daring rescue mission before the super drill could get cranked up. But the danger of swimming through 1.6 miles of flooded shafts seemed overwhelming, even for the best frogmen. And then what would they do with the miners once they reached them?

So hope was pinned on a super drill, which most of the rescuers had never even seen before.

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