QUECREEK, Pa. - Nine miners remained trapped last night along a narrow seam of coal as rescue workers sought to drill through about 250 feet of solid rock to save them from millions of gallons of water rushing in from an adjacent and long-abandoned mine.
State officials said they believe one or more of the men, trapped since about 9 p.m. Wednesday, were alive as of yesterday, because rescue workers who drilled a 6-inch-wide hole and inserted an air pipe down to the miners tapped on it several times and received the same number of taps from below.
But even if the miners have survived the onslaught of coursing water - neck-high according to nine co-workers who managed to wade to safety - they still face a potentially deadly threat: hypothermia. Air and water temperatures in the mine are about 50 to 60 degrees, which, particularly if the men are soaking wet, would make survival difficult after several hours, a medical official said.
Last night, in this traditional mining area about 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, rescue workers began drilling a 3-foot-wide hole through which they hope to pull the men out. But it could take at least until late morning today to drill down to the men, who were believed to be huddled in a pitch-black chamber no more than 5 feet high.
"It's probably wet, cold and dark," said a grim Joseph Sbaffoni, a state mine safety official. "Their cap lights are probably out.
"Coal miners are a special breed," he said. "If anyone can get through it, a coal miner can."
Crews spent much of yesterday working furiously to pump water out of the mine, the spewing geysers the most visible sign above ground of the perils deep below. Officials said they believe they've created an air pocket for the trapped miners and are using sensitive seismic equipment to detect signs of life.
Meanwhile, an air of desperation seemed to shroud the area as thickly as the fog that cloaks this mountainous region. Many here know the trapped miners - or if not, they know the dangers of the work because their fathers and grandfathers have also done their time in one mine or another over the years.
"I buried an awful lot of my family, I buried an awful lot of her family," said Stephen Walker as he and his wife, Christian, watched the rescue efforts from a nearby hill. "They all worked in the mines."
Christian Walker's cousin is one of the trapped miners, but she declined to give his name. State and local officials similarly have refused to identify the miners, and have kept their immediate relatives, about 150 of them, sequestered in a nearby firehouse. Some were brought to the mine yesterday so they could see what crews were doing to rescue the men.
In areas such as this, people are accustomed to the slower ways that the mines have killed miners - the emphysema, cancer, black lung disease and the like that have killed the Walkers' relatives over the years. Then there are the maimings - the arm cut off by machinery, the head injuries from falling chunks of coal.
It's why, Stephen Walker said, his grandfather forbade him from following him into the shafts as previous men of his family have done, and he instead became a carpenter.
Still, when this particular site, which was being mined by the Black Wolf Coal Co. of Friedens, Pa., began operations - it received a permit in 1999 - workers once again hired on.
"You have to weigh the danger of crawling around in a 3-foot space, and feeding your family and paying the mortgage," Christian Walker said. "You have to make your choice."
She could only shake her head as she added, "He's got a wife and two kids."
Warning saves nine
The trapped men were among 18 who entered the mine on Wednesday. They were shuttled about a mile into the mine and split into two groups working in separate areas. One group saw water flooding in and radioed the other men a warning. That ultimately saved the lives of the second group. They were able to wade through the rising waters and out of the mine, but their co-workers became trapped.
The workers apparently breached a wall separating their mine from the abandoned Saxman mine which, since its closing in the early 1960s, had filled up with an estimated 50 million gallons of water. Emergency officials were alerted to the mine accident late Wednesday and have been working to free the miners since then.
Rescue comes first
David Hess, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said state law requires that new mines be separated from abandoned ones by at least 200 feet of solid rock. Surveys and maps indicated that there was sufficient separation between the two mines, and the state in 1999 approved a permit allowing the new mining operation. Hess said officials plan to investigate the discrepancy.
The immediate goal was to rescue the trapped miners.