Crews scramble to save miners 240 feet below

Friday, July 26, 2002

SOMERSET, Pa. -- Encouraged by a tinny tapping sound coming up from the depths, rescuers drilled an escape hole Thursday in a race to save nine coal miners trapped 240 feet underground in a dark shaft filling up with millions of gallons of frigid water.

After about 1 1/2 hours, crews had bored 45 feet toward the 4-foot-high chamber where the men were believed trapped. Rescuers hoped to use the 2 1/2-foot-wide shaft to pull survivors out of the mine 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Rescuers were also pumping air into the tiny chamber through a much smaller hole, hoping it would buy them enough time save the miners who have been trapped since 9 p.m. Wednesday.

"We still believe there are miners alive. We obviously don't know how many," said David Hess, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection. "This is a very tricky and dangerous situation, and I don't want to raise expectations."

Twenty-four hours after the accident, noise and dust rose from the site, which was illuminated by bright floodlights. Medical personnel were standing by. Neighbors sat on a fence to watch the rescue efforts.

"They're working feverishly. You can sense when people are determined and have their grit about them," said Gov. Mark Schweiker, who toured the site Thursday night.

The miners, ages 30 to 55, were trapped after apparently breaching the wall of a flooded and abandoned mine next to them, releasing more than 50 million gallons of water into the shaft where they were working.

Incorrect maps

The miners believed the old mine was still some 300 feet away, but their maps were incorrect, officials said.

It was unknown how high the water was in the shaft, but officials said cold water was rushing past them as they huddled in the dark. Between the water and an air temperature of no more than 60 degrees, rescuers feared the men could suffer hypothermia before they were rescued.

Joseph Sbaffoni of the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety said the men were probably sitting in the cramped space, their lamps long since gone out.

"It's probably wet, cold and dark," he said. "Coal miners are a special breed. If anybody can get through it, a coal miner can."

Rescue crews lost contact with the miners soon after the accident but heard tapping early Thursday on a 6-inch metal drill they were using to bore the lone air hole. Other holes were drilled to pump out water, slowing but not stopping its rise. Crews last heard tapping around noon.

Rescuers hoped to create an air bubble around the men that would keep them alive and stave off the rising water.

Sbaffoni said the miners apparently dashed into an air pocket about 200 feet from where the wall of the abandoned mine was breached, water rushing past them as they did. Another crew of miners -- warned by radio by the men who were trapped -- managed to wade to safety in water up to their necks.

Sbaffoni said the first contact with the trapped survivors came at about 3 a.m. "We tapped and we heard tapping back," he said.

Later, with rescue machinery making too much noise for workers to hear if the miners were still tapping on the air line, officials placed seismic devices to pick up noise underground. The signals were still coming Thursday afternoon.

"It's just about like being buried alive. You don't know dark until you've been in a coal mine," said Clark Shaulis, an 82-year-old retired coal miner who stopped by a Lutheran church near the mine to pray for the crew. "If they're still down there I'm sure of one thing: They're praying."

The two groups of miners were about a mile and a half from the entrance when they hit the abandoned mine, which was last active in the 1950s, Hess said.

Pennsylvania requires 200 feet of solid rock between mines, but the maps of the area were incorrect, Hess said. He said there will be an investigation into the inaccuracy.

Specialized mine rescue teams were called to the scene, as were federal safety experts.

The coal seam was being mined through a process called "room-and-pillar," in which roomlike sections of the seam are removed and pillars of coal are left behind to support the roof.

The mine was opened in 2000 by Black Wolf Coal Inc. and it employs about 60 miners. It had one prior accident, according to state officials, but no one was injured when a 40-by-30-foot-section of roof collapsed in October.

About 80 family members gathered privately at a fire hall in nearby Sipesville. Later, officials allowed them a brief visit to the mine, which is about 10 miles from where hijacked Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11.

"They could see and hear and feel what was going on," Hess said. A disaster worker said the Red Cross had grief counselors at the site, and the mood was quiet and tense, with little talking.

Last September, 13 miners were killed in explosions at a Brookwood, Ala., mine. It was the nation's deadliest coal mining accident since a fire in a Utah coal mine killed 27 miners in 1984.

Ted Lepley, who works for Black Wolf Coal, awaited word near the mine's entrance.

"Those are my brothers down there," Lepley said. "God help them."

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