Trapped miners rescued to end three-day ordeal

Sunday, July 28, 2002

SOMERSET, Pa. -- 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, Gov. Mark Schweiker said.

Schweiker appeared before reporters and raised his hands over his head.

"All nine are alive," he said. "And we believe that all nine are in pretty good shape." He said rescuers planned to lower a capsule to raise the miners from the shaft.

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 the telephone into the shaft 240 feet below.

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

The miners are in "reasonably good" condition, said Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration

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

The miners 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.

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

Workers quickly set about removing the drill and preparing the shaft for a rescue capsule.

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.

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, who were believed to be in a 4-foot high chamber, was sometimes painfully slow. 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. 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 believed to be.

The rescuers worked cautiously toward the miners because they feared compromising a hollowed-out section of coal seam believed to be about 4 feet high, which may have been partially flooded.

They suffered gut-wrenching setbacks, including a broken drill bit Friday that delayed the effort by 18 hours.

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

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