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Chapter Six

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The rescue continues

As the miners grimly held onto their hope and their energy deep under the earth, the rescuers above them started Thursday evening imbued with optimism.

Schweiker predicted that the rescue mission was heading for the homestretch. He said the miners could be reached in half a day.

The super drill had arrived in pieces under a police escort with blaring sirens. Its assembly was under way, and the drill would be chewing through the earth by 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Rescue workers modify a device called an overshot that was used to retrieve the three-quarter-ton broken drill bit lodged in Rescue Shaft One above Quecreek Mine. The disabled drill bit caused an 18-hour delay in drilling to reach the nine trapped miners. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

Schweiker said a 240-foot life-saving tunnel to the miners could be dug by 3 or 4 a.m. Friday. Then it might take another three or four hours to remove the drill and lower a rescue basket through the 30-inch-wide hole.

In private briefings, Schweiker's advisers told him such a timetable was possible, but the super drill would have to slow down during the final 40 or 50 feet. Such a precaution would be necessary to prevent the life-saving air pocket in the mine from being destroyed. If the big drill bit punched through the roof too quickly, the air in the mine shaft would rush upward, potentially allowing water to fill the void and overwhelm the miners.

Even if the water didn't overtake the miners, the pressure release could cause another serious problem.

With the air being pumped in to the mine, the miners were like SCUBA divers breathing pressurized air, and that could put them at risk for an illness called "the bends" if the pressure were to drop suddenly. In an extremely rapid pressure drop, in fact, bubbles could even form in their bloodstream and, like embolisms, kill them.

Dr. Nick Colovos, a reservist and physician with the Special Medical Response Team and Allegheny General Hospital, got in touch with experts at the U.S Navy in Norfolk, Va. On Thursday evening, 10 portable hyperbaric chambers arrived at the drilling site to allow the miners to be immediately treated for decompression illness once they were brought up.

As another means of preventing a pressure drop, the response team's Dr. Richard Kunkle worked with engineers to create an instant airlock to place on top of the escape tunnel hole.

Larry Neff, construction supervisor at BethEnergy Mines Inc. in Revloc in Cambria County, pulled out a memo pad and roughed out two plans for a crude airlock, then phoned Don and Buddy Walker, a father and son team who operate Lincoln Contracting Co. in nearby Boswell.

The Walkers fashioned a 40-foot-long, 3-foot-diameter tube with a sliding bottom door to go on top of the escape shaft and keep the pressurized air from leaking as the escape capsule was being lowered to the miners.

The work on the airlock, as well as the sounds of drills, pumps, and people shouting, created a cacophony above the mine.

No tapping from the miners had been detected since 11:30 a.m. Thursday, but it easily could have been masked by the noise on the surface.

By now, Schweiker was focused on the super drill and breaking through to the miners. He had a knack for speech that could be both casual and stirring. The super drill inspired him to use it. Before the sun comes up, he said, "We should be good to go. We're going to get our guys out of there."

Never could he have imagined that another disaster loomed.

About 1:50 a.m. Friday, after millions across the country who were following the drama had gone to sleep, the bit on the super drill broke. It was 105 feet into the ground.

Work on the escape hatch stopped cold. The broken bit had to be fished out before drilling could resume, a daunting job in itself.

Yost, of the company running the super drill, would later say that removing a broken bit can sometimes take a week. Schweiker knew it, too, but the thought was so depressing that he never voiced it.

With reporters cloistered two miles from the drill site, Schweiker said nothing publicly about the setback for five hours. Even so, the scent of disappointment was palpable.

KDKA-TV reporter Bob Allen went on air about 6:30 a.m. Friday and said he had heard of some snag or difficulty on the drill site.

About a half-hour later, Schweiker appeared live nationally on "The Today Show" and announced that the bit had broken and the rescue, for the moment, had ceased.

There were many low moments for families huddled at the fire hall, but this was the worst.

Schweiker made certain they knew of the setback before the public did, but that barely softened the blow. The fire hall had not yet been equipped with cots, so relatives of the miners spent the night outside, trying to sleep in their cars. What rest they got was interrupted when they were told of calamity at the drill site.

Schweiker admitted it would be no easy job to retrieve the bit, but rescuers would try. Meantime, crews would start drilling a second rescue chute about 75 feet from the first.

He prepared for his afternoon visit to the fire hall by seeking an inspiring biblical passage to share with the families.

Upbeat as he walked in, Schweiker announced that he wanted everybody to pray with him. Then he read from Psalm 46:

"God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble."

In later conversations with the miners' loved ones, Schweiker assured them that workers were doing everything mechanically, technically, intellectually and humanly possible to revive the rescue.

Mary Unger, 87, whose son John was among the trapped miners, felt too frail to travel to the fire hall. From her home, she said what many of the miners' sequestered relatives were thinking.

"It's awful, the waiting. It seems like things just keep going wrong."

The man assigned to take news to the families was PBS leasing agent John Weir, who was serving as Black Wolf's spokesman. By Thursday night, he was under orders from Schweiker to report hourly to the Sipesville fire hall, after making the rounds from the pumping stations to the mine to the drilling site.

"Basically, I told him it couldn't be done. I told the governor I needed an hour and a half. But he looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'It will be hour for hour.' "

"And I did that. Sometimes it was bad news because the bit broke, the drill broke, the water didn't go down."

It mattered not. To the folks at the Sipesville fire hall, Weir became their lifeline -- no matter what they heard, either by cell phone or through the media -- the families refused to believe any information unless it came from Weir, who was being fueled by adrenaline and Krispy Kreme donuts.

"The people down here at the fire hall, the numbers meant everything to them. A quarter of inch, an inch, two inches. Sure they wanted to hear big numbers. They wanted to hear the water dropped 10 feet. The drill went 25 feet. But that's not the case. It was inches.

"Every time I'd go to that fire hall, the number of eyes that were on me was unreal. It was like looking at the saddest children in the world waiting for me to tell them something. It was emotionally the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. It was tough to tell. I had one of the mothers come up and put her arms around me and say to me 'I'm gonna hold you until you tell us the news.' "

Some of the most tense moments came when the first drill broke.

As the Yost people worked to fish it out of the ground and get the rig started again, a second drill was erected by Falcon Drilling. Operator Larry Winckler began punching through the earth. But it, too, would eventually break down.

Weir learned that news on one of his rounds. Winckler embraced him, crying.

"He said, 'John, I failed you. My rig's down and I really feel I failed you and I failed the people.' I said, 'Larry you were my success story because when drill No. 1 wasn't drilling you gave me what I needed to tell the people. You gave me those inches and feet. And to them people down there, it didn't matter if it was No. 1 hole or No. 2 hole. You were drilling when No. 1 was down and that's what the people wanted to hear."

In the meantime, drilling crews could not extract the broken bit in shaft No. 1. They needed a specially made "fishing tool" to do the trick.

Rescue crews heard that Frank Stockdale, plant manager of Star Iron Works in Big Run, Jefferson County, could build just what was needed.

Stockdale was happy to try, but first he needed engineering prints of the drill. They would give his workers a road map of how to attack the bit.

Normally, a job so big would take three or four days. Rescuers faxed the prints and implored Stockdale to pull out every stop to get the work done sooner. His 95-member shop did just that, building the tool in three hours.

"When they call you up and tell you a National Guard helicopter will be waiting to pick it up when you're done, you get a sense of urgency," Stockdale said.

He was sure the tool would work, and he was right. This specially made fishing hook grabbed hold of the 1,500-pound bit and yanked it from the hole about 4 p.m. Friday.

After a 14-hour shutdown, the first rescue tunnel was back in business. But drilling on the first escape hatch would not resume until about 8 p.m. Workers kept digging the second one, too.

The pace was nowhere close to the one that Schweiker had predicted a day earlier. But hope, once as fragile as bone china, had been restored to the families. The fire hall resounded with cheering.

Once things settled down, a soberness took hold. By now, everybody knew that reaching the miners was not something a governor or anybody else could predict.

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