Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

Miner: Didn’t think he would survive being trapped in mine

Miners kept each other warm

July 28, 2002


— One of the miners pulled from a cramped, flooded shaft where he and eight others were trapped for three days said Sunday he thought he was going to die.

"I didn't think I was going to see my wife and kids again," a teary-eyed Harry B. Mayhugh told reporters, several hours after being pulled out of the Quecreek Mine in western Pennsylvania.

After hours of determined drilling and agonizing setbacks for rescuers, the miners emerged in surprisingly good condition early Sunday. They suffered minor hypothermia and just one had signs of decompression sickness.

"Their condition is remarkable given the situation they were in," said Dr. Russell Dumire, a trauma surgeon at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, where six of the miners were hospitalized.

The miners spent their 77-hour ordeal standing, immersed in 3 to 4 feet of water, struggling to keep warm. They snuggled each other, lay against each other and sat back to back - "anything to produce body heat, you know," said Mayhugh.

The nine also took turns encouraging each other when someone became downcast. "That's the only way it could have been," he said.

The men huddled around a pipe funneling down warm air, which Dumire said probably saved their lives.

The nine wrote down last words to their loved ones and put those notes in a pail so they could be found, Gov. Mark Schweiker said. Then, they tethered themselves together, so that if they drowned rescuers would find them all.

The men became trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine at about 9 p.m. Wednesday, when they inadvertently broke into an abandoned, water-filled mine that maps showed to be 300 feet away. As much as 60 million gallons of water rushed into the shaft where they were working, and they were able to warn a second crew, which escaped.

With no signs of life to encourage them since Thursday, determined crews bored through the ceiling of the 4-foot high chamber at 10:16 p.m. Saturday. The breakthrough allowed workers to drop a telephone line to the miners 240 feet below and confirm they were alive.

Mayhugh said hopes rose and fell as the hours passed.

"We didn't know what to think," he said. "There were high points and low points every day."

He said his ordeal didn't end Sunday. "Emotionally I'm still - it's going to take time to heal," he said.

Dumire said the miners had rock ledges to lean on but were on their feet most of the time. When they were hauled up one-by-one in a yellow rescue cage, they were covered in coal, he said, hungry and dehydrated.

At the hospital, the miners "pretty much devoured anything that was put in front of them," scarfing down doughnuts, sandwiches, soup and coffee, Dumire said. Several asked for beer, but doctors would not allow it because of the danger of dehydration.

"All they've asked for is warm blankets, food - and they want to go home," he said.

By Sunday afternoon, three miners were discharged from Conemaugh, and three were released from another hospital. Of the three remaining miners at Conemaugh, two reported chest pain and one was being treated for decompression problems.

When the miners were contacted, one of the miners said, "What took you guys so long?" according to a rescuer.

Ron Svonavec, of Somerset, was at the top of the rescue shaft when contact was first made. He said one of the miners said, "There's nine men ready to get the hell out of here. We need some chew."

Schweiker appeared before reporters late Saturday night and raised his fists over his head to announce the men were alive.

At the Sipesville Fire Hall, where the families had been gathering, people erupted in celebration. Families cried and hugged and many spilled into the street with hands in the air.

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

Though the miners had not been heard since Thursday because of the noise of rescue equipment, mining company spokesman John Weir said they "were tapping the whole time they were down there."

The first miner was pulled out at about 1 a.m. to the wild applause of rescuers and dropped onto a stretcher. After that, miners were brought up in roughly 15-minute intervals; the last emerged at about 2:45 a.m.

The fourth miner had a bright smile on his blackened face as he was pulled up in the yellow, cylindrical capsule. Some of the miners had chipped American flag decals on the sides of their helmets. One miner's helmet flashlight was still aglow.

The miners surprised medical personnel who had prepared to treat them for symptoms of hypothermia or the bends, an excruciating condition caused by sudden changes in pressure. Decompression chambers, ambulances and 18 helicopters were at the scene 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

For days the men had been described as a tough breed. Air was pumped into the chamber at a temperature of more than 100 degrees to warm them before anyone at the surface knew they were alive.

Drilling a rescue shaft to the men, age 30 to 55, 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. Drilling was halted early Friday morning because a 1,500-pound drill bit broke after hitting hard rock about 100 feet down, delaying the effort by 18 hours.

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

Before the drill broke through, 30 feet of water had been drained from the mine to give the 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.

Schweiker told MSNBC Sunday morning that when the final miner was brought out, "It was a dream come true. It was the culmination of some remarkable planning, intense effort and teamwork ... just a moment never to be forgotten."

The rescue attempt transfixed the nation and the region, a hilly, rural area where the hijacked Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11. Schweiker said family members of Flight 93 victims sent an e-mail message to the families of the miners while they awaited word.

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