9 men remain trapped in mine

With damaged drill bit replaced, rescue crews in Pa. continue their work

`Real tough for the families'

July 27, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUECREEK, Pa. - Above ground, rescue efforts for nine men trapped in a coal mine here suffered a devastating setback yesterday morning when a drill that was boring an escape shaft suddenly stopped in its tracks, its bit damaged, stalling progress for much of the day.

And below, the nine men languished in an unknown condition, trapped since Wednesday night in a cold, dank chamber, perhaps fighting hypothermia and wondering when rescuers might reach them 250 feet underground.

"I don't like it. I got a bad feeling," said Parrie Baker, a former miner and now assistant fire chief with a local department. "If you've ever been in the mines and got wet, you know how cold it gets."

Baker was among more than 100 workers laboring to free the men who became trapped when their equipment punched a hole in the wall separating their mine from an adjacent abandoned one. That sent millions of gallons of water flooding into the working mine, cutting off the men from escape.

The rescue workers have been drilling on a family's dairy farm in nearby Somerset, directly above where the men are believed to be confined on a 4-foot-tall ledge.

Yesterday, the farm remained a hive of activity even as the idle drill and lost time weighed heavily and visibly - in the blank stares of the trapped men's relatives, who watched workers struggling to repair the broken bit; in the weariness of the rescue crews, some of whom have worked around the clock only to see hours of effort go down the drain; and in the red eyes and hoarse voices of officials like Gov. Mark Schweiker, who could not hide their frustration over the setback.

"So here we are - for 10 hours we've gotten nowhere," Schweiker said at midday yesterday, "and that's real tough for the families."

Still, he and others vowed to retrieve the miners. After hours of failed attempts, crews managed to get the damaged bit off the drill by late afternoon. The grooves on the bit were apparently stripped, and devices at first could not get a grip on it to wrench it off the drill. Workers eventually replaced the bit - and had extra ones on hand - and resumed drilling last night.

The drill had bored about 110 feet into the ground before stalling about 2 a.m. As a backup, crews had begun using a second drill to start working on a second escape shaft in case the original drill could not be repaired. The second drill had only bored down about 40 feet by yesterday evening.

Officials, though, said they were encouraged that they had reduced water levels in the mine by continuous pumping operations.

Meanwhile, many of the rescue workers also were idled by circumstances yesterday - numerous medical personnel were standing by, waiting for any surviving miners to be brought up.

"We're as ready as we can be," said Shawn Houck, a medical technician. He and his colleagues were simulating rescue exercises on one another to prepare for the real patients.

"We're 100 percent sure hypothermia is going to be the biggest issue," he said.

Any surviving miners may also suffer from such ailments as "the bends," or decompression sickness, that sometimes beset divers and others who spend time in a pressurized atmosphere. Rescue workers have been pumping warm, pressurized air into the chamber where the men are trapped.

The idea is to create an air bubble, allowing the miners to breathe and preventing more water from flooding into their space. The heated air could also raise the temperature in the chamber to fight hypothermia.

U.S. Navy officials, who have brought about 60 personnel and nine decompression chambers here, estimate that the pressure in the miners' chamber is comparable to what divers would experience 40 feet underwater.

"They will need to be decompressed so they will not get the bends," said Capt. Henry Schwartz, a Washington-based undersea medical officer who has worked on such crises as the Japanese fishing boat that was accidentally struck and sunk by a Navy submarine near Hawaii in February 2001.

Schwartz said his personnel will be using methods similar to those that would be used if a submarine had become disabled on the bottom of a body of water. Surviving miners will have to be raised slowly to the surface, and medical personnel will try to get them into decompression chambers within 15 minutes.

The operation remains a potentially hazardous one. Officials say that as drills approach the miners' location, they will have to proceed slowly to avoid puncturing the air bubble and creating a sudden depressurization of the atmosphere. Technicians have created an air-lock system for the rescue shafts to avoid sudden changes in pressure for miners being pulled to the surface.

As the drilling proceeded on a better course yesterday evening, officials nonetheless seemed subdued by the setback that had robbed them of precious hours. They were reluctant to predict when the drills would reach the miners, or they gave much more conservative estimates than they had before.

"It's going painfully slow," Schweiker said. "We've got a long way to go."

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