Rescuers drill through the night to reach trapped miners
SOMERSET, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Rescuers will work through the night to save the lives of nine miners trapped in a flooded seam in a southwest Pennsylvania coal mine.
The nine men were cut off late Wednesday when they broke through into a flooded abandoned mine.
More than 50 million gallons of water rushed into the Quecreek Mine, 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, trapping the nine men in an air pocket about 200 yards from the breach, about 240 feet below the surface and a mile from the mine entrance.
Other miners, warned by the men now trapped, escaped, wading through waist-deep water to the mine entrance.
About 150 of the trapped miners' friends and families are staying at the nearby Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department Hall, about 10 miles from the site of the September 11 crash of Flight 93. The mine is located about 6 miles north of Somerset.
Rescuers are hoping to maintain the air pocket by blowing compressed air into it through small holes drilled earlier in the day.
At the same time, they are rushing extra pumps to the site to help remove water and blow more air to help stem the rising water-level in the mine.
Joseph Sbaffoni, chief of the Division of Field of Operations for the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, said the pumps were removing 15,000 gallons of water a minute by mid-evening.
On Thursday evening, drilling began on an escape shaft about 30-36 inches wide. Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker said later that drilling progress was faster than expected.
What he described as a "trash can sized" shaft was down to 45 feet after the first one and a half hours of drilling and Sbaffoni said he estimated the shaft would be near the trapped men within 10 to 12 hours, barring technical problems.
The plan once the shaft reaches the men is to lower a basket and attempt a rescue.
Unless the pumps drop the water level significantly before then, this will need to be done through an airlock to maintain the air pocket underground, Sbaffoni explained.
"That drill represents their opportunity to live," said Schweiker
Crews communicated with the trapped miners earlier Thursday by tapping on a pipe.
"There's no question those taps we were hearing were made by individuals," said Sbaffoni. "We know we had communication with them, we know they're alive."
"We answered them and they tapped back."
Asked about the conditions underground Sbaffoni said, "wet, cold and dark." He said the roof was about 48 inches high at that point and that the miners would be sitting in the dark as their cap lamps would have given out.
"It's just about like being buried alive. You don't know dark until you've been in a coal mine," said Clark Shaulis, an 82-year-old retired coal miner who stopped by a Lutheran church near the mine to pray for the crew told The Associated Press.
"If they're still down there I'm sure of one thing: They're praying," he said
"Coal miners are a special breed," said Sbaffoni. "If anyone can make it through, a coal miner can."
Hypothermia is a concern because the water temperature in the mine is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, David Hess, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said.
The rescue "is a tricky operation," Hess said, warning that "a lot can go wrong, unfortunately."
Hess said authorities were aware of the abandoned mine but the map they were using did not show its correct location. Pennsylvania has been mined for many years. Many of the mines have been left abandoned, he said, and mine mapping isn't always accurate.
But he said Quecreek Mine, owned by Black Wolf Coal Co., has not had safety problems in the past.
"It's a new mine and the record has been very good," he said.
Last September, 13 miners were killed in explosions at a Brookwood, Alabama, mine. It was the nation's deadliest coal mining accident since 1984.
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