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Industry Mobilizes to Rescue PA’s ’Miracle Miners’

Thu August 15, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund


Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!

Lord, hear my voice.

— Psalm 130

When a crane lifted nine coal miners, one by one, in a rescue basket from their dark captivity 240 feet below the earth at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania on the early Sunday morning of July 28, it was an almost unbelievably happy outcome for time-critical cooperative efforts by hundreds of people from the construction industry as well as other rescuers.

Here's how contractors, manufacturers, equipment distributors, operators and others worked together, as the seconds ticked away, to save the nine while the families of the miners, joined by many millions throughout the world, waited with desperate hope.

Reaching the Men

The men, members of the night crew, were trapped about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24, when their continuous mining machine broke through the wall of a long-abandoned mine, loosing an estimated 60-million gallons of water into the current excavation shafts.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) called for emergency assistance from several drilling contractors shortly after midnight. "We were fortunate to have a lot of expertise in the area for the oil and gas industry," said Doug Catalano, oil and gas inspector for the department working out of Pittsburgh, PA. "They're used to drilling as deep as 4,000 feet."

After entering the latitude and longitude of the mine entrances into a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, a surveyor chose the spot for drilling.

"That guy deserves a steak dinner," said Tom Walker, president of Keystone Drill Services Inc., the Ingersoll-Rand (IR) dealer in Somerset, PA, who provided critical expertise and equipment. It was indeed a "long shot" which proved to be the right call.

Lou Bartels, president of Bartels Drilling Co. in Somerset, about 4 mi. from the mine, was chosen to drill a hole to bring compressed air to the trapped men below.

3:15 a.m., July 25 — Using a Reich drilling rig with an IR bit, a Bartels operator in the cab, with Lou Bartels standing by, began drilling a hole 6 in. (15.2 cm) wide at the selected spot.

5 a.m., July 25 — The drill broke through to the men, allowing compressed air, which runs at 190F, to be pumped to them as an oxygen supply.

Since this air runs at 190F, its heat also would help fight hypothermia from the water.

"We knew they were there; you could hear them tapping on the drill," Bartels told Construction Equipment Guide (CEG).

Now the challenge was drilling a 29-in. (73.6 cm) wide hole for lowering a rescue basket.

6:30 a.m., July 25 — After rising from sleep, Tom Walker turned on Cable News Network (CNN), saw the Bartels drill rig, and heard the news of the mine collapse a few miles away. A drilling contractor, it turned out, had called him at 1:30 a.m., but his wife had referred the caller to Keystone's service manager.

"I called the contractor, asked what they would need, and then called IR," he said.

"They immediately shipped two compressors from Mocksville, NC, and hammers and bits from Roanoke, VA. After that, they made several more high-speed round trips from Roanoke carrying needed equipment.

The high-pressure compressors were model XHP1070W Cats delivering 1,070 cu. ft. (30.3 cm) per minute (cfm) at 350 lbs. (158.7 kg) per square inch (psi).

Keystone is the largest dealer of high-compression equipment in the world, and is located four miles from the mine collapse. Walker called in at least a dozen compressors and numerous large hammers from different parts of the United States.

"To bring that much air in from all over the place is phenomenal," said one observer.

3 p.m., July 25 — Contractor Duane Yost, Mt. Morris, PA., using an IR RD20 large rotary downhole drill, began drilling the 29-in. (73.6 cm) wide Rescue Hole Number One. Yost's drill bit broke Friday morning.

The top 20 ft. (6 m) of the hole had been paved in concrete to set the standpipe for a straight plumb. The broken bit, however, would prevent the needed plumb.

"If we didn't get the bit out, we would have had to abandon the hole and start all over again," Bill Booksha, chief of engineering services for the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, an agency of PADEP, told CEG.

Rescuers called Star Iron Works, Punxsutawney, PA, a well-known manufacturer of tools for "fishing" out broken bits. But these "overshot" tools didn't come from a shelf. They were manufactured to order.

Star built the needed overshot in about three hours. A Pennsylvania National Guard helicopter then picked it up and flew it to the mine. "It was still hot when it arrived," a Star Iron official told CEG.

The overshot, whose interior is threaded, was connected to the drill rod and lowered into the hole. The turning rig then threaded the bit inside the overshot and lifted it out so that the drilling could resume.

"When the bit, which was not from IR, broke, we provided a 26-inch IR bit, a QL200 large downhole hammer, which provides percussion energy to the bit, and some additional high-pressure air, using the 1070," Walker said.

(When the first drill bit broke, Falcon Drilling Co., Indiana, PA, started Rescue Hole Number Two, 30 in. (76 cm) in diameter, late Friday, using an RD10 rotary drill which incorporated an IR 1050/350 compressor. The drilling also used auxiliary air from a 1070/350 and employed a QL200. But this hole was never completed because Rescue Hole Number One made it through first. "They wanted us to conduct operations in the event our hole was needed, and, luckily, it wasn't," Lary Winckler, operations manager for Falcon, told CEG.)

The two drill rigs each used 6,000 cu. ft. (170 cu m) per minute of air.

10:13 p.m., July 27 — Rescue Hole One broke through to the men. The hole, which had begun with a 29 in. (73.6 cm) diameter, is now 26 in. (66 cm), raising some fears of the rescue basket getting stuck.

"When we broke through, we turned off the air compressors and you could hear the miners down there beating on the drill pipe," Walker said.

Lowering the Water

6:30 a.m., July 25 — Scott Malcolm, branch manager in the Pittsburgh, PA, rental branch office of Godwin Pumps of America Inc., heard the news of the trapped miners on the radio of his company truck as he drove to his office.

He immediately called the Pennsylvania State Police on his cell phone and asked how he could help.

"They said, 'If you have pumps, bring them down,'" Malcolm recalled.

6:45 a.m., July 25 — Brian Miller, project manager directing the reconstruction of 12 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Somerset, PA, for P.J. Dick Trumbull Corp., Pittsburgh, PA, the general contractor on the job, was in his field office talking with Denny Haines, his superintendent of bridge structures, when the phone rang. Haines took the call. It was Malcolm, saying they desperately needed pumps in the rescue efforts.

"Denny looked over at me and said, 'We've got to get the pumps over there!'" Miller said.

Haines was using two large 8-in. (20.3 cm) suction diesel pumps, rented from Godwin's Pittsburgh branch, in his bridge work. He, Miller, and others loaded the two CD225M Dri-Prime models powered by John Deere 4045T 99-hp (73.7 kW) diesel engines on one of Trumbull's flatbed trucks and got them to the mine, approximately five miles away, with a police escort. Malcolm brought another CD225M to the mineshaft.

8:45 a.m., July 25 — All three pumps were being set up at the rescue site.

Malcolm also had called Herb Schroeder, his regional manager in Buffalo, NY, about the emergency.

"We talked to the mine people — everyone was pretty busy as you would imagine — in a conference call with John Paz, our president at company headquarters in Bridgeport, NJ," Schroeder said. "They gave us a quick briefing about where pumps had to be placed and how much piping was needed. Paz told me to catch a plane to the site and mobilize people and equipment."

12:30 p.m., July 25 — After chartering a plane to Johnstown, PA, and driving a rental car 30 miles to Quecreek, Schroeder arrived at the mineshaft.

Meanwhile, Paz had loaded four 14,000-lb. (6,350 kg) 12-in. (30.4 cm) high-pressure pumps — HL250M Dri-Prime models powered by 440-hp (328 kW) Caterpillar 3406C diesels — plus 3,000 ft. (914 m) of pipe, suction hose and accessories, on four flatbed trucks and had them on the road from Bridgeport, with a police escort, before noon. A fifth HL250M was sent from a job which was being dismantled in White Plains, NY.

4 p.m., July 25 — The first HL250 arrived, followed by the other four in the next three hours. Twenty miners helped connect 2,000 ft. (609.6 m) of hose to each.

12:15 a.m., July 26 — All seven pumps are in place and operating at the entrance to the mineshaft, at the bottom of a 50-ft. (15.2 m) deep quarry-like pit.

At their peak, they pumped 24,000 gal. (90,847 L) of water per hour into a creek near the mine.

"When we began pumping, water was at least 14 feet high, reaching the rafters of a 14-foot high building near the mine entrance," Schroeder said.

2 a.m., July 26 — Water in the pit has gone down to 8 ft. (2.4 m). The level is dropping about 1 ft. (.3 m) per hour.

Meanwhile, another remarkable effort was taking place to pull out the water by means of submersible pumps. Rescuers called Wagner Sales, Carrolltown, PA, which distributes Goulds Pumps, on Thursday, requesting assistance.

Wagner called Goulds plants in Memphis, TN, and Lubbock, TX, also alerting Joe Neurohr, the Goulds territory manager in Greensburg, PA.

"Our people in Lubbock provided two 300-hp model 14RJ pumps, first machining a motor adapter and assembling them on Thursday to double-check that everything would fit on the adapter," said Neurohr. "They then chartered a plane at 11 a.m. on Friday and air-freighted them in separate parts to Pittsburgh. We brought them with a police escort to the mine, reassembled and installed them, and then fired them up about 7:25 Saturday evening. They were pulling 3,000 gallons per minute through two eight-inch lines. That's when the water level started dropping to the point that they could drill the rescue hole through."

L.K. Drilling Corp., Indiana, PA, had drilled a 12-in. (30.4 cm) pilot hole, followed by a 24-in. (61 cm) hole, to a depth of 300 ft. (91.4 m) in 11 hours, 22 minutes. This work used IR's RD20 drill and was located in a cornfield about 1 mi. from the mine entrance.

Wayne Drilling, which hastened to the site from Maryland, drilled a second 300-ft. (91.4 m) hole.

The pumps were then lowered to the water through the two holes.

Other drilling contractors, including Yost and Falcon Drilling, also drilled water relief holes before being called to the main rescue scene.

Goulds Pumps, part of ITT Industries, is headquartered in Seneca, NY.

Other drilling contractors also assisted, drilling two holes along Route 985, where the cover was shallow. These smaller holes went down approximately 150 ft. (45.7 m) but they didn't work out as well, getting less water out because they could only accommodate smaller pumps.

The Rescue

12:30 a.m., July 27 — Brad Hillegass, a crane operator for Trumbull on the turnpike job, was awakened by a phone call from project manager Brian Miller.

"He wanted to know if I had a three-quarter-inch cable on the crane and if I had more than 350 feet of it," Hillegass told CEG. "I said I thought I did." Hillegass drove to the Somerset job site from his home in Shellsburg, approximately a half-hour away, and revved up the crane, driving it to the mine at approximately 35 miles per hour. A police car led him, with lights flashing. He was also escorted by Trumbull's nightshift superintendent, Norman Herron, and Teamster's representative Charley Arnold.

The crane was a 40-ton (36 t) Link-Belt RTC 8040 rough-terrain model which Trumbull had rented from All Crane Rental of PA in Pittsburgh for lifting bridge forms. It would play a critical role in the rescue.

1:30 a.m., July 27 — Hillegass arrived at the mine.

"We found the guy in charge; he wanted to know the exact amount of cable, and its diameter," he said. "We figured roughly 450 feet. Mine safety people then spent all day Saturday with me making sure the crane would do the job, including the worst-case scenario of bringing up bodies. I'm a volunteer fireman; I'm used to emergency situations, but this was more tense. We were preparing for the worst and I had my doubts whether the miners would make it."

5 p.m., July 27 — Rescue officials sent Hillegass home to get some sleep.

7 p.m., July 27 — Officials called Hillegass, telling him to return because the water level was down.

10:13 p.m., July 27 — The drill at Rescue Hole 1 reached the men. Rescuers soon lowered a solid state confined-space-rescue communications probe, with 300 ft. (91.4 m) of cable, through the Bartels air hole, previously drilled, to communicate with the miners.

The probe was provided by Rob Zaremski, president of Targeting Customer Safety Inc., who was the first person to talk with the miners. Zaremski then handed the mike to Jeff Kravitz, chief of mine emergency operations, technical support, for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), under the Department of Labor.

"I tried keeping their spirits up," Kravitz told CEG. "I told them 200 people were here. They were surprised. Then I asked what they needed. The first thing they asked for was flashlights. We put high-powered lights down the hole so they could see when the capsule was coming through. They wanted food so we started lowering candy bars. They also asked for snuff and tobacco. I asked the doctor about this and he said 'Give them anything they want except for alcohol.' I was kind of surprised that the men were also kind of joking once they knew the rescue capsule was coming."

The news that the men were alive and conversing was first given to their families. Approximately 45 minutes later, Gov. Mark Schweiker announced the glad tidings to the anxious rescuers.

"I will never forget that moment," said PADEP's Bill Bookshar. "We hadn't heard from the men in a couple of days. I had 50 miners around me and there wasn't a dry eye among the bunch."

The PA Department of Environment Protection and the federal MSHA jointly directed the rescue along with the mining company, Black Wolf Coal Co.

The escape capsule was the top section of a rescue bucket which Westinghouse Corp. had designed after the Silver Mine disaster in the 1970s. Never used, it was sent to the site from storage in Beckley, WV. With an OD (outside diameter) of 21 in. (53.3 cm) and about 8 ft. (2.4 m) long, it was designed to go down a 24-in. (61 cm) casing. The miners climbed in through a sliding door.

12:42 a.m., July 28 — After rescuers communicated instructions by telephone to the men below and Hillegass had precisely positioned the crane, he began lowering the capsule into the hole.

"They also rigged the basket with a camera cord and a telephone cord," Hillegass said.

"They didn't want me to go any faster than 30 feet a minute, which is very slow. I had to manually push a lever to operate the drum."

Hillegass lowered the capsule in about eight minutes. It took about eight minutes to bring up the first — and heaviest — miner, Randy Fogle.

12:58 a.m., July 28 — Fogle emerges to cheers and hugs and kisses from his family.

"I felt pretty excited," Hillegass said. Besides seeing the men reunited with their loved ones, he was in his cab as Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker stood on the crane approximately 3 a.m. and spoke words of thanksgiving and praise.

As the world watched, Hillegass lowered the basket nine times, bringing nine men out of the dark depths. Ironically, he never realized it was all being televised, and, as of this writing, has never seen a tape of the rescue.

"The crane operator was a real hero," said Kravitz. "He operated everything like an elevator. In the back of my mind, I still had concerns about an uncased hole going from 29 inches to 26 inches but it turned out smooth."

Exposed to some water running down the hole, the miners just wanted out.

Tom Walker, at the scene, heard the communications with the miners via the telephone receiver in the basket.

"They would tell the miners to keep their hands in the basket, and so on," Walker recalled. "One said, 'I'm in the basket; just get me the hell out of here!' The entire operation was a feeling I'll never forget as long as I live — the vision of 150 to 200 people, companies all working together to get the miners out."

"Though their cap lamps are only good for 12 hours, they must have conserved them because one guy's lamp was still dimly lit," Kravitz said.

2:45 a.m., July 28 — The last miner is pulled to the surface.

"When things are tough and people are in need in a life-threatening situation, everyone pulls together, even competitors," said Bookshar. "The construction industry was a part of that; which is why the guys are safe.

"Everyone, from the pump manufacturers to the truckers, mobilized and did what needed to be done. You didn't hear one single word of bitching from anyone."

The Investigations

MSHA is investigating the accident. It also is naming a panel to look into the issue of mine mapping, and whether there might be a problem of incorrect mapping all over the country.

One theory is that the old mine had been secretly extended beyond its original boundaries.

Gov. Schweiker also has ordered an investigation of the accident by the state of Pennsylvania.




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