Crews rescue Pa. miners

Nine men being rescued after being trapped since late Wednesday night

`This is a miracle'

First one out complained of chest pains, was taken to hospital by helicopter

July 28, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUECREEK, Pa. -- The nine men trapped in a coal mine here since Wednesday began emerging from their cold, water-soaked prison early this morning, mostly in good condition, after rescue workers succeeded in drilling an escape shaft through which they could be hoisted.

"There are nine men who are ready to get the hell out of here," one of the men told above-ground rescuers who had dropped a communications device into the enclosure where the men had been trapped after millions of gallons of water flooded into the mine.

First up, at 1 a.m., was Randy Fogle, 43, who had been experiencing chest pains. He was followed shortly by Harry Mayhugh, and then Mayhugh's father-in-law Thomas Foy. By 2:25 a.m., seven men had been rescued.

As he was hauled to the surface in a narrow metal cage, Fogle's face was covered with grime, his coveralls soaked and glistening in the spotlights surrounding the drill hole. Looking exhausted, he all but collapsed into a stretcher and was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital.

"This is a miracle," said a tearful John Weir, a spokesman for the Black Wolf Coal Co. that employed the men.

After days of stop-and-go efforts to reach the men, the rescue proceeded swiftly once a drill rig punched into their cramped chamber.

Within an hour, rescue workers spoke with the men over a telephone lowered through a 6-inch-wide pipe that had been used to pump compressed air into the chamber.

"They're all down there," a rescue worker shouted moments later. "They're waiting to come up. There's nine of them. We talked to them on the telephone."

"We believe all nine are in pretty good shape," said an exuberant Gov. Mark Schweiker. "Incredible."

Rescuers were seen hugging and giving the thumbs-up sign, and Schweiker pumped his fists in the air and smiled broadly.

The men had endured three days in a cold, dank space not tall enough to stand up in, with water less than 60 degrees coursing past them.

"Ah, man, what a relief. It don't get much better than this," said Doug Custer, a fellow miner who was in another crew of workers in the mine Wednesday, when the men became trapped after puncturing the wall of an adjacent mine.

Custer escaped the flooding because the trapped men warned them of the approaching water. "If it hadn't been for them, there would be dead bodies in the mine -- ours. They're a great bunch of guys."

Schweiker said he had "the never-to-be-forgotten pleasure of leaving the drill site and spending time with the families" after learning the good news. He said they were "exhilarated" and cheered as if their team had won the Super Bowl.

"Praise the Lord," shouted one family member, Schweiker recounted.

David Hess of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said the rescue was a blend of skill and luck. The 6-inch-wide air shaft drilled shortly after the accident turned out to have been drilled exactly where the men had taken refuge from the water. They knocked on it immediately but then hadn't been heard from since Thursday.

After the larger drill reached the men's location last night, one of the operators heard a tapping on the 6-inch-wide pipe once again.

"The operator heard three taps, and then two taps," said David Lauriski, assistant labor secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Crews immediately stopped the noisy operation of equipment and dropped headphones and a communication device down the air pipe last night.

"They picked it up, and we immediately had a conversation," Lauriski said.

The news was greeted with immense relief as many had feared that as the days dragged on, the men's chance of survival grew dim. If they hadn't suffocated from the initial lack of oxygen or drowned in the water in the beginning stages of the disaster, then surely hypothermia would set in, some thought.

Weir, though, professed no surprise at the happy outcome.

"They're the toughest person that walks the earth," he said.

The rescue came after a roller coaster of highs and lows, of swift progress one minute followed by a drastic setback the next -- and with the emotions of many in this mining region along for the ride.

About 8 p.m. yesterday, drilling was briefly halted by a rupture in a seal that was keeping pressurized air in the mine shaft. But work quickly resumed.

There was a sense of this-is-it. The drilling operation was at its most delicate and dangerous. Crews had to make sure they didn't damage the roof of the chamber and injure surviving men, who were surely in a weakened state after more than 70 hours in a cold and wet atmosphere without food or water.

Workers also had to make sure they didn't pierce the air bubble they had created and maintained by pumping in compressed air.

Puncturing this bubble and thus depressurizing the chamber could have two dangerous consequences: Flood waters that had previously been kept out of the space could rush in and swamp the miners. And the rapid change in pressure could cause serious medical problems.

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