Sandwich, heated air sustained the `niners'

Rise in pressure pushed underground flood back

one remains in hospital

July 30, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. - A corned beef sandwich, two bottles of soda and an air supply system that had never been tried sustained the nine miners who were trapped for nearly 80 hours underground until Sunday morning, some of them said yesterday.

The decision to try to pump 640 cubic feet of heated air per minute into the miners' underground chamber, Gov. Mark Schweiker said yesterday, gave the miners the warmth and oxygen they needed to stay alive, while raising the air pressure enough to push back the underground flood that had trapped them Wednesday night.

The sound of the drilling followed by compressed air blasting into their chamber at 5:30 a.m. Thursday was the first proof the miners had that their rescuers had an idea where they were, some of the miners said yesterday.

The mine was flooded when the wall with a flooded adjacent mine was breached by a machine that cuts coal from the face of the seam and moves it back for loading on a conveyor.

At a news conference yesterday at the Conemaugh Memorial Hospital, five of the miners described seeing the wall of water flooding in on them, of trying to escape as the water rose to their waists, and then of retreating to their chamber, which they knew to be the highest ground they could reach.

"We thought a couple of us were having heart attacks from the anxiety or whatever, and we were having trouble breathing and we just went in there and sat down," said Thomas Foy, 52. "But once they started getting the air in there, then guys starting feeling better and we could start barricading."

They had tried to build a wall against the water with cinder blocks and tarps, but the water kept coming, Foy said, until the air pressure pushed it back.

At one point Foy noticed a covered lunch pail, still holding a sandwich and two sodas, bobbing in the water.

"The sandwich was still dry," he said. "So I took a bite and passed it to the next guy."

Foy and John Unger, 52, were discharged from the hospital yesterday, leaving only their crew chief, Randall Fogle, 43, still hospitalized.

In Washington, officials said a mine safety team would be formed this week to determine whether the breakthrough had been an innocent mistake by a miner who was misled by inaccurate maps, or a case of a miner cutting closer to an adjacent mine than the rules allow.

On Sunday, Schweiker said that some of the miners were hesitant about going back underground. Yesterday, several said they thought their days digging coal may be over.

"I don't believe too many of us will go back to that kind of work," Fogle said. "It's too hard on us, and I think it's too hard on our folks, too."

But Dennis Hall Jr., 49, insisted that the accident was a one-time event.

"I've been mining for almost 30 years and don't think this will happen again in a million years, if the coal industry lasts that long, which it won't," Hall said with emphasis. "If we stay away from the boundaries it's never, ever going to happen again."

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