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Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

9 miners survive 3-day underground ordeal

July 28, 2002

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— Nine coal miners were found alive Saturday night after rescuers spent an agonizing three days drilling through 240 feet of earth to save them from a cramped and flooded mine shaft.

After 72 frustrating hours, Gov. Mark Schweiker appeared before reporters and raised his fists over his head.

Rescue workers examine a drilling unit at the Quecreek Mine in
Somerset, Pa. Rescuers Saturday eventually saved all nine miners
who had been trapped underground for three days.

Rescue workers examine a drilling unit at the Quecreek Mine in Somerset, Pa. Rescuers Saturday eventually saved all nine miners who had been trapped underground for three days.

"All nine are alive," he said. "And we believe that all nine are in pretty good shape." He said rescuers planned to begin the process of lowering a capsule to raise the miners from the shaft after the drill was removed.

Schweiker said one of the miners reported feeling "some heart stress" and said the man would be evaluated. Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the miners were in "reasonably good" condition.

"I can't give you any good estimate of how long this round trip's going to take," Lauriski said.

The Sipesville Fire Hall, where the families had been gathering, erupted in celebration. Families cried and hugged and many were in the street with hands in the air.

"Wow. Wow. Wow. It's just unbelievable," said mine worker Lou Lepley, who has been staffing the mine entrance for three days. "I have no words."

Rescuers were seen hugging and giving the thumbs-up sign soon after dropping a telephone line into the shaft.

The word came from an unidentified, mud-caked rescue worker who shouted up from the pit near where they dropped the communication device: "They're all down there. They're waiting to come up. There's nine of them. We talked to them on the telephone."

After three days of desperate drilling, a giant auger broke through about 10:16 p.m. to the dark and cramped chamber where the miners had been trapped since 9 p.m. Wednesday.

The miners became trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine when they inadvertently broke into an abandoned, water-filled mine that maps showed to be 300 feet away.

Rescue workers had remained optimistic the miners were alive, even though there had been no contact with them since midday Thursday, when tapping was heard on an air hole.

"If there's any slogan (among the rescue workers) it's 'nine-for-nine,"' Schweiker said before the drill broke through. "We're bringing up nine of our guys."

Dozens of family members had kept a vigil at a nearby fire hall and had made several trips to the rescue site. Officials met with them every hour to keep them apprised.

Reaching the men, age 30 to 55 and who were believed to be in a 4-foot high chamber, was sometimes painfully slow. Drilling a rescue shaft to the men, didn't begin until more than 20 hours after the accident, because workers had to wait for a drill rig to arrive from West Virginia. And drilling was halted early Friday morning because a 1,500-pound drill bit broke after hitting hard rock about 100 feet down.

A second rescue shaft was started and it wasn't until Saturday that measurable progress was being made on both shafts.

Pumps had been draining the mine of some 50 to 60 million gallons of water for days, but it was not known how much, if any, water had been in the chamber where the miners were.

The rescuers worked cautiously toward the miners because they feared compromising a hollowed-out section of coal seam.

Helicopters were standing by to whisk miners from the scene 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh to hospitals, and medical personnel were set to immediately treat injuries or hypothermia.

Nine decompression chambers also were at the scene. Medical personnel said the air pressure on the miners could be as much as is experienced at 40 feet underwater, and the men could suffer the bends bubbles in the bloodstream caused by rapid changes in pressure once they were rescued.

Air had been pumped into the chamber at a temperature of more than 100 degrees in the hope that it would warm the men.

Before the drill broke through, 30 feet of water had been drained from the mine, the amount needed to give the trapped men more room and ensure the pressure wouldn't cause water to rise when the ceiling was pierced.

A cap was placed over the rescue shaft at the surface to ensure the chamber remained pressurized.

The miners were trapped when they broke the wall of an abandoned mine that maps showed to be some 300 feet farther away. As much as 60 million gallons of water rushed into the shaft where they were working.

The miners were able to warn a second crew, which escaped.

The rescue attempt has transfixed the region, a hilly, rural area long dependent on coal and one that suffered tragedy during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 40 passengers and crew on Flight 93 died when it was taken over by hijackers and crashed near Shanksville, about 10 miles from the mine. Schweiker said family members of Flight 93 victims sent an e-mail message to the families of the miners.

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