TOPICS > Politics

Miners’ Miracle

July 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The subterranean nightmare that ended early Sunday morning began three days earlier, at around 9:30 on Wednesday night. That’s when the nine men working the night shift at Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, hit trouble. They drilled into an old, abandoned mine they thought was 300 feet away. Fifty-five-degree water gushed in. Survivor Blaine Mayhugh described the scene after his rescue yesterday.

BLAINE MAYHUGH: It was four foot high, just a steady stream coming down through the mine.

REPORTER: And did you know how serious it was?

BLAINE MAYHUGH: Yes. We tried to outrun it but it was too fast. The way we went, we got trapped, and so we had to eventually turn back and go back up into the section where we was.

THOMAS FOY: The water is coming in at that point down two entries probably four feet high in a torrent of just like a swollen river.

GWEN IFILL: Miner Dennis Hall said this morning he knew there was a second crew nearby. He yelled for them to get out.

DENNIS HALL: There was nine other men working in the section below us and the intensity of the water, it was tremendous. And in a matter time it would have been on top of them.

GWEN IFILL: That crew escaped. For the next five hours, Hall’s crew swam and waded their way to higher ground, worried about their families, unsure of their fate.

BLAINE MAYHUGH: This is it. I didn’t think I was going to see my wife or my kids again.

DENNIS HALL: Very cold. We probably never warmed up until we were lifted out of the mine.

GWEN IFILL: Six hours later, just after 3:00 in the morning, a six-inch pipe punched through the cave where the miners huddled together for heat. It carried warm, pressurized air from above. The air helped the men breathe, kept the water level down, and reassured them that rescue efforts were continuing. Yesterday and today several of the survivors told their stories.

THOMAS FOY: We got the air… that’s what we needed more than anything, because we didn’t have to worry about the water, because we were going to run out of oxygen before we ran out of anything.

BLAINE MAYHUGH: We was on dry, maybe 50 feet by 20 feet compartment that was relatively… I’m not going to say dry but the bottom was moist.

REPORTER: And how were you guys all keeping warm?

BLAINE MAYHUGH: Snuggling each other, laying up against each other, sitting back to back to each other, anything to produce body heat, you know.

REPORTER: What were the conversations? What were you guys talking about?

BLAINE MAYHUGH: Anything imaginable, about your family, last thing you said to your family, you know, before you left work… for work that day. You know, and the only day of my life I never kissed my wife before I went to work and that had to be the day.

GWEN IFILL: The next day, Thursday, the miners wrote notes to their families, placing their good-byes in a lunch pail.

BLAINE MAYHUGH: Well, it was Thursday, around 12:00 noon and the water started rising, and we was running out of room, so I asked the boss if he had a pen, and he knew what for. I said, well, I want to write my wife and kids, you know, to tell them, I love them, and you know.

GWEN IFILL: Then, on Thursday night, 24 hours into the ordeal, the drilling sounds from above stopped. The large drill bit digging their escape route sheared off only halfway down.

BLAINE MAYHUGH: One time the drill, I think we timed it, it was like 16 hours we had never heard it run again, so we thought, well, maybe they gave up on us or something major happened. We had no idea what to think.

GWEN IFILL: Hours later, according to Thomas Foy, good fortune floated by in the form of a corned beef sandwich.

THOMAS FOY: Floating bucket, somehow or another floated up to us. I mean, up to our area. I picked it up and sure enough it was still dry inside that bucket.

REPORTER: You found the sandwich, the Pepsi and Mountain Dew?

THOMAS FOY: Right.

REPORTER: How did you split it up?

THOMAS FOY: One guy took a bite and just passed it around, whoever wanted a bite got a bite.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, at around 10:00 on Saturday night, a large rescue hole appeared. The repaired drill had finished boring a 30-inch hole down 240 feet.

BLAINE MAYHUGH: Different times we thought it was through and it wasn’t through. Last time when I guess it did go through, I think it was your father-in-law and the other, Ron Helman; he came up and said, we got a hole; everybody come down here and we just started yelling up, help, help, please get us out.

GWEN IFILL: They also said, “What took you so long?” Foreman Randy Fogle came up first. He’d been complaining of chest pains.

RANDY FOGLE: It’s not something that we’ll forget really. To forget something about it, to me, I don’t think there is anything you want to forget about it. It was an experience that we lived through, and it worked the way things are supposed to work.

GWEN IFILL: Physicians later said the nine men fared “remarkably well” physically.

DR. JUDY BIELEC, Somerset Hospital: They just looked like they had old men’s feet we said, wrinkled and pruney from being in the bath too long, so to speak, but otherwise no frostbite, nice warm toes, nice good pulses; looked great, we were surprised.

GWEN IFILL: The men’s body temperatures were around 98 degrees, much higher than doctors had feared.

GWEN IFILL: That was the view from below ground. Now, here to fill us in on the remarkable rescue effort above ground are Dave Lauriski, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and David Hess, Chief of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Hess, on Friday this all seemed terribly bleak. How did it turn around?

DAVID HESS: Well, the whole thing was really a roller coaster ride from the beginning. But I think there were a couple of factors. One, I think it was the determination and the focus that everyone in the rescue team had both federal and state to get those guys out. But the key thing was, as was mentioned in your opening piece getting that six inch well down there, getting the air down there to provide them with not only the air but the ability through the compressed air to hold that water back. It was just an amazing story and I think a lot of prayers were answered when it came out this well.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like an engineering feat as much as anything.

DAVID HESS: Well, it sure was and I think, again, it’s a tribute to the experience of the federal and state people that we had working on this thing. It was just a tremendous effort. And we used rescue techniques that haven’t been used in the United States before. Again, this is what these folks train for in terms of mine rescue. And it was all put together in a very organized and quick way.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lauriski, when you look at that map and see what had to happen in order for the miners to come out alive, it seemed there were three components we were talking about, air water and rock. How did you begin to sort through what you needed to do first and how?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, we knew first of all that the nine miners had tried to get out and didn’t make it to the surface, and we had an idea that they were still in the area based upon the fact they had called either section and warned them to get out. And we also had the mine maps that indicated — give us an indication of the elevation so we knew through engineering estimates how long, you know, the water would take and how fast it would build. And through that and also knowing the locations from surveys where we could put the drill hole down, and there was discussions obviously held between all of the parties about where the best place would be.

GWEN IFILL: Was there any concern since the mine maps were off in the first place, which is why the miners were drilling the wrong place, that any rescue that you mounted relying on the mine maps was also going to be misguided?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, the concern was with the map and the old mine. We had much less of a concern with the map in the current mine. And when the decision was made where the coal was… the hole was to be placed, it was right on the money. It was very precise, and it and came out in the very middle of the tunnel, if you will, right where it was supposed to come out.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hess you were worried about air pressure as much as the fact that this water could rise up and essentially drown these miners. How did you balance these things out?

DAVID HESS: Well, it turns out the compressed air that was forced down through that six inch pipe to that mine void did a couple of things — not only provided oxygen but the compressed air held the water back and created a really safe place, a bubble where the miners could exist. The air did also another thing to prevent hypothermia; the air itself was arm, so it kept them a little bit warmer than they order natural would have been in that situation.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hess we haven’t heard a lot about mine collapses or people being trapped in mines in some years, how common is this and have you seen anything that was this serious recently?

DAVID HESS: Well, in Pennsylvania the last accident of this type happened in the eastern part of the state, in the anthracite area. It was called the Porter Mine Tunnel Accident; that was in 1977. So these accidents with respect to Pennsylvania and the flooding of mines aren’t really that frequent at all.

GWEN IFILL: Why is there water in the mine? This seems like a simple question but not being a miner I’m curious.

DAVID HESS: Well, you have to remember mining it done hundreds of feet below the ground, and in the case of the abandoned mine there were no pumps to pump that water out, while they’re mining. That water accumulates in the mine and that particular abandoned mine was abandoned in 1950s. So there was water that was as much as thirty-five or forty feet above where those miners were in the old part of mine but not the new part.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lauriski now that we have the best possible outcome in terms of the rescue, how do you begin to piece together how this happened?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, we’ll begin an investigation starting sometime this week and we will have a team of investigators….

GWEN IFILL: When you say we?

DAVID LAURISKI: The Mine Safety and Health Administration but we’re also going to be working very closely with the state of Pennsylvania in this investigation process but we have trained investigators who understand these issues and we’ll start looking at the record books; we’ll start looking at mine maps and we’ll begin the interview process to try and piece together this… the facts of this accident.

GWEN IFILL: Are you piecing together the facts as much as for safety issues or because you’re looking to find whether laws were violated?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, the primary function of an accident investigation is determine the root cause of the accident. So we uncover the facts; the facts will tell us everything we need to know about how to prevent recurrence but it could also give us facts about culpability as well.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hess, do you have any sense from having worked in Pennsylvania and studied this how these maps could have been so far off the mark?

DAVID HESS: Well, I think that’s one of the key questions we need to ask. I think we also need to ask and I might mention that Governor Mark Schweiker today announced a special commission will be formed headed by Dr. Romney, a Penn State University professor, very well-known national and international expert on mining, to look at the issue of not only the maps, but also the operation.

There are procedures that mining companies can use, such as drilling a small hole ahead of where they’re mining to find mine voids. So we’re going to be looking at all those things in addition to the official investigation that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and DEP will be doing jointly.

GWEN IFILL: That didn’t happen in this case, that drilling of a small hole ahead?

DAVID HESS: Actually I don’t think we can pin down that information yet. I think that’s something that will come out as a result of these different investigations that will be going on.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lauriski, at the end of an investigation, is it possible that it would lead to criminal charges against an individual or business?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, there is that potential, but I think at this point we don’t have any indication that that’s the case. And I think it’s really… we need to understand the facts and gather the facts and really piece this puzzle together before we can begin to even look in that arena.

GWEN IFILL: And this is an elemental question; this is a federal investigation because…

DAVID LAURISKI: Because we’re charged with the responsibility to oversee all the mine safety across — in all mines across the United States, and so we have the statutory obligation under the Mine Act to conduct this investigation as the primary investigator at that site.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hess, you have spent the past several days as has Mr. Lauriski at the site. How cold was it for these miners; how polluted was the air down where they were; how difficult were these circumstances?

DAVID HESS: Well, I think as more and more is coming out in the media and obviously later in the investigation, I think we’re finding a couple of things: I think the miners themselves have said that the air was getting bad prior to the time that that first six inch well was put down into the void. So at that point, they have….

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me…

DAVID HESS: They may have been an hour or two away from not having good air to breathe.

GWEN IFILL: When you say the air was getting bad, what do you mean — it just was getting close or it was getting toxic?

DAVID HESS: It was getting to the point where there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air for them to breathe, and that’s really what prompted us putting the compressed air down there, because readings showed there wasn’t enough air to breathe comfortably.

GWEN IFILL: And at some point when you were trying to do this, say, when this drill bit broke, did you begin to think Mr. Hess, that you were going to be able o pull this off?

DAVID HESS: Well, I tell you, it was a real roller coaster. That was certainly probably the low point in the rescue operation, but I tell you, the guys who were running that drill rig — and we actually had two different holes going at the same time — those guys were doing their level best and really giving 200 percent to try and get those guys out and ultimately, of course, we exceeded.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lauriski, how much man and woman power you would say was involved in this rescue effort?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, it was tremendous; I mean there were a lot of entities that were involved; the Mine Safety & Health Administration alone had 50 people at the site but there were… I have to guess there was a couple of hundred individuals involved from many different agencies and it was a tremendous effort and there was a tremendous partnership by everybody involved, and so great outcome.

GWEN IFILL: All said now, how do you begin to prevent this from happening again?

DAVID LAURISKI: Well, that will be the thing we look at; that’s one of the issues that the investigation will look at and one of the things that we need to find out, is from this accident investigation how we can piece the puzzle together to prevent recurrence of these in the future. So that process will get underway in earnest this week.

GWEN IFILL: Same question to you Mr. Hess, what do you think about prevention; what is it that you saw unfold this week in the last several days that you know immediately has to be fixed to prevent this from happening again?

DAVID HESS: Well, again, I think David said it. The investigation will give us some details but we aren’t waiting for an investigation. We have about 53 underground mining operations in the state of the Pennsylvania, about 34 of them we know are adjacent to abandoned mine… abandoned mines and we’re going through each one of the 34 operations to determine if the same risk exists as existed at the Quecreek Mine. And in particular, we’re going to be looking at whether this drill ahead technique, where you put a small hole in front of where you’re going to drill, to locate mine voids, is something that needs to be done in those cases.

GWEN IFILL: Well, congratulations on a successful rescue effort, Mr. Hess, and thank you very much for joining us Mr. Lauriski.

DAVID LAURISKI: Thank you very much.