Trapped miners' rescue suffers setback

Saturday, July 27, 2002

SOMERSET, Pa. -- Rescuers desperately trying to reach nine coal miners trapped 240 feet underground struggled to cut an escape hole Friday after a drill bit broke in a heartbreaking setback that cost them nine precious hours.

It took until late afternoon to get the 1,500-pound bit out of the way, clearing the way for drilling to resume with a new bit rushed in by helicopter.

"It puts you in a prayerful mood," Gov. Mark Schweiker said after the bit broke 100 feet down -- not even halfway to the men. "It's going painfully slow."

The miners have been in a tiny air bubble inside a flooded, 4-foot-high passage since Wednesday night. Rescue officials said the men were believed to be huddled in the dark, their lamps extinguished long ago, and were being soaked by cold, rushing water.

Officials said they feared hypothermia would set in before rescuers could break through -- something that wasn't expected until at least this morning.

Rescuers said they had not heard a clear signal from the miners since midday Thursday. They twice tried to listen for the men Friday, but noise from rescue equipment made it too difficult to hear if the men were making tapping sounds or other noises.

Wilbert Foy, 47, whose brother, Thomas Foy, 51, and nephew-in-law, Blaine Mayhew were trapped below, remained confident about prospects for rescue.

"They'll pull all nine of them out, one by one," Foy said Friday night.

Mary Unger, 87, said her son, John Unger, was among the trapped workers.

"He's my only son," she said. "It's awful. The waiting. It seems like things just keep going wrong."

Break at 100 feet

Rescuers began drilling a tunnel at the Quecreek Mine on Thursday night. It went smoothly until the drill bit broke early Friday when it hit hard rock or coal about 100 feet down, still nearly 150 feet above the men. As crews struggled to remove the bit, work began on a second rescue shaft 75 feet away.

Drilling in both shafts was agonizingly slow as workers scrambled to fit the equipment with bits to get through the bedrock below. By Friday evening, the first shaft was still only 100 feet deep and the second one just 40 feet deep.

Drillworkers coming off their shift Friday night described the effort as long and tiresome. But Jody Frantz, 29, who was leaving the site to catch a quick nap, said there is a spirit of cooperation and determination.

"We have to believe, that's all you can do," Frantz said.

Officials were hesitant to guess when the shafts might reach the miners, but Joe Sbaffoni of the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety said at 6 p.m. that it would be at least seven hours. Crews then planned to drop a basket and pull the men up.

"Everyone is disappointed. This is a real roller-coaster," said David Hess, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection.

There was still hope among rescue crews that some or all the miners, ages 30 to 55, were alive. The air being pumped into the chamber was about 100 degrees, raising hope that it might warm the men.

Navy Capt. Henry Schwartz, a specialist in underwater medicine, said nine decompression chambers had been brought in to treat the men.

He said the air pressure on the miners was similar to that experienced at 40 feet underwater. He said the men could suffer the bends -- bubbles in the bloodstream caused by rapid changes in pressure -- once they were rescued. An airlock was on site to keep the rescue shaft pressurized if needed.

Dozens of family members kept a somber vigil at a fire hall in nearby Sipesville, as they have since the accident. They paid a brief visit to the mine Thursday, and the governor said officials were meeting with them every hour to bring them up to date on the rescue effort.

There was some good news Friday: The water level inside the mine 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh was dropping as crews pumped water out at a rate of about 20,000 gallons a minute.

The rescue attempt has transfixed the region, a hilly, rural area long dependent on coal. Gene Spangler, 77, said he was surprised by the accident because the industry has shifted toward strip mining done above ground.

"We just thought people don't mine like that any more," he said. "To have nine guys down there was quite a shock."

Mine experts said that drilling, though slow, was still the best way to reach the men. They said sending divers through coal pillar catacombs flooded with debris-filled water was too dangerous.

The accident happened when the miners broke the wall of a second, abandoned mine that their maps showed to be farther away. As much as 60 million gallons of water rushed into the shaft where they were working.

Doug Custer was among nine other miners inside when the accident happened. He said he and his colleagues escaped after getting an urgent radio message from the trapped crew: "The water's on the way. Get out."

Custer waded through knee-deep water to get out. He was among those awaiting word at the mine Friday.

"It's slow and nerve-racking," he said. "Things aren't going the way they should."

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