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Authorities Hold Briefing on Trapped Miners

Aired July 26, 2002 - 12:05   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: I understand we are going to go live now to the area where the governor is speaking about this rescue effort -- let's listen in.


GOV. MARK SCHWEIKER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: You know, the families are just, you know, hopeful, and as you can easily imagine, in a state of high anxiety. And you know, to that end, we are sending a briefer, I'll call him every hour, you know, even if nothing changes. You know, they'd like someone to come on into that fire company and look them in the eye and talk about what's occurred or what's not occurred.

And so we are trying to address that state of high anxiety. And you know, you've got children up there and you've got adults up there and you've got grandparents up there and you've dads and moms up there, and all feeling the angst that comes with this kind of terrible ordeal that the families experience.

But through it all, and I've had many conversations, and I've been in two prayer services since we last gathered, and they remain hopeful. I think it's important to just talk about the nature of these mining families. You know, they have been around what amounts to a rough occupation for a long, long time. They know that there are unsafe dimensions to the world of mining, and it gives them, you know, some grit and a preference for just straight talk, whether it's from the governor or those who come up to brief them as to where things stand.

I cannot imagine it being easy though, as it did occur last night when I had gone up with Dave and the Empshire (ph) folks and the company reps late last night just before noon, and say, hey, we're making good progress. Just to go over the numbers, you remember about midnight last night, you know, we were close to 100 feet down. That was encouraging. That amounted to encouraging progress. And then at around 2:30, the drill bit broke, and we ran into problems.

So for four hours, you know, we started around 8:00 or 8:30, we were descending at a very encouraging clip. And then, by 2:30, it stopped, and we had the damage. And I will speak to where we stand as far as retrieving that in a minute. And so, here we are at this noon hour on Friday, had ran into the problems at around 2:30, so for four hours, we got -- we traveled down 100 feet. But for 10 hours, we got nowhere, and that's real tough for the families. And -- but we think it important to give them straight-talk assessments. We have tried to do that in every hour. We try to, whether something has occurred to the good or to the bad, let them know where we stand. And it was a very powerful, emotional moment when the local pastors brought everybody into a large circle in that small, rural fire house and to literally hold the Bible and encourage people to offer their favorite passage that gives them spiritual comfort as they face this challenge. And hopefully, it did some good, and hopefully, just for a short time or a long time, it buoyed spirits. And you know, I don't know. They are -- I haven't been back there since midmorning.

That's where the families are. And let me talk about the engineering, I will call it.

We're -- so far, we have not had any success at grabbing ahold of that damaged bit. You know, it's about -- well, 120 feet down, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it's about 105 feet.

SCHWEIKER: Or 105, somewhere, you know, you get different quotes. But we are down there, and it's just -- it's -- you know, I used the water bottle earlier. Let me go back to that again.

They are sending a piece down this 30-inch rescue shaft, and it's got to -- it's got to grab -- it's got to get over, they call it an overshot, and then they turn it. Theoretically, they turn it and they can bring it up, and then they can put a new one on it and go back down. Well, it's stripped. That what's they -- that's their surmisal. It's stripped, so they get down there, they grab it, and then they -- it falls off.

So at this point, under the heading of straight talk, we are where we were last night, effectively at 2:30 in rescue shaft 1. We are all set to replace it should the fishing step prove fruitful.

Let me take you over to rescue shaft 1, which is just, you know, a 10-second walk from that spot. We've got another drill under way, and they are already about 30 feet down. And it's going to be tough to predict rescue shafts -- rescue shaft 2 and its drilling success, witness what happened at 1. I am making those numbers up, you know, when I say 1 and 2, but it helps to make the point. You know, we got stopped at 1, and hopefully we don't get stopped at 2. But it makes predictions as to when we would reach the chamber and safely so -- hard to offer.

And so I can tell you this, though. I mentioned this morning that we were going to, you know, begin the process of sinking the two shafts, and if need be -- you know, we're going to hit that point soon. We are just going to begin to outfit rescue shaft 2 with all of the equipment we need, to just get on down there. And you know, we plan and work and pray that it's going to go well.

One other thought that -- or one other piece of information that is encouraging, and it's nice to have encouraging developments. The rate of water that we are taking out there is probably over 20,000 gallons a minute earlier this morning, and we are probably running just a little bit past that clip now. We were taking out about a foot of water. That amounts to about a foot of water an hour. And I guess, what are we saying now, Dave? We've got about how much out of there? About 7...


SCHWEIKER: About 17 feet already out. Our surmisal on the surface is that, you know, with the continued success and utilization of that rate, if we get another 12 to 15 out of there, then we have taken a significant amount of water out of there.

And the reason that I mention this and emphasize this is that at that point, we can -- we would assume that as the drilling takes us closer to the chamber where our guys are, that we don't imperil the vacuum of sorts that's been created that amounts to a support of living environment for the miners.

You know, when we pumped all of that air in, you know, it creates this figurative bubble, and you know, it gives them some heat and some oxygen and that kind of thing. And you know, it keeps the water at bay. But you know, when you get closer, you know, if you have water in there and you pierce it, it may reintroduce water. And -- but if we go solo and succeed at the pace that I quoted just a minute ago as far as taking out water, then we have the prospect of not being reliant on that life-supporting bubble that we believe and we hope exists there. So that's something I wanted to mention.

So with that, I will open up your questions, and these guys behind me, if need be, can amplify.


SCHWEIKER: Yes. That is -- well, ideally, it helps us to pick up appreciable sounds.

Now, I don't think we've -- we are about to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right, we are about to.

SCHWEIKER: We're about to do it. I mean, it could be under way as we speak, but I know that the equipment and the experts are there to conduct that test. And you know, we are going to do it at some point, but it means you've got to stop all of the activity that generates vibration, whether it's the drilling -- and literally the 100 or so technicians and drillers that are there cannot walk. You can't have -- I mean, that equipment is so sensitive, you cannot have any movement. It picks it up. So that's coming, that's coming.


SCHWEIKER: Well, do you want to...


SCHWEIKER: ... discuss it. SBAFFONI: To try to go in from the portal, we are talking approximately a mile, and that's just not a feasible option. I don't even think it's practical or possible.


SBAFFONI: It's too far to go for a diver. When you get in that mine environment with the type of equipment and debris that that water has probably rushed through that mine, you'd be posing an unacceptable danger. And I don't know if a diver can go that far. I mean, I just don't think it's possible.


SBAFFONI: That's going to take a long time. I mean, you know, in previous briefings, we figured we would put at least 50 to 60 million gallons of water in there, and you know, we still have water flowing in there. You know, we had to increase the pumping rates, you know, up over 20,000 gallons a minute to actually start drawing that water down. So you're talking a long time to de-water that coal mine to where you can get to walk back to where this area is.


SBAFFONI: No question.




SCHWEIKER: Well, down the road when we bring up the miners, we may well -- they may well be experiencing the bends, and you've got to get them into a decompression chamber. And I'm going to ask the Navy officers behind me to respond. But they will be all set to go and to provide that decompression support.

CAP. HENRY SCHWARTZ, MEDICAL CORPS, U.S. NAVY: It's -- the engineers estimate that...


SCHWARTZ: Captain Schwartz -- Henry. And I'm an Undersea Medical officer, and I am not a SEAL.

The engineers estimate that the pressure down there, where the miners are, is approximately the same as 40 feet underwater. They have been there maybe a day-and-a-half at that pressure. They will need to be decompressed. We have provided and have brought a number of commands, and my partner will talk about that, in order to decompress those miners safely, so that they will not get the bends.


SCHWARTZ: That's hard to say. We are optimistic that the time they are down there now is well within those limits, that they are surviving.


SCHWARTZ: The effects of being under that pressure are minimal, and in fact, people can go as deep in the air as maybe 300 feet. The problem will be decompressing them suddenly in which bubbles will evolve anywhere in the body, and that is the...


SCHWARTZ; They will be into the nine hyperbaric chambers that we brought with us, yes.

QUESTION: Captain, are you in agreement that even Navy SEAL divers would not be able to in through this mine and get to these people?

SCHWARTZ: I have seen some diagrams. It would be -- and I would certainly agree with the engineers on that. I have seen diagrams of the mine and so forth, but although I'm really not an expert in mines at all.

QUESTION: Governor, we know that there is a 6-inch hole that's drilled down there.


QUESTION: Is there any other way to at least to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) contact with the miners through that hole that has been attempted or will be attempted?

SCHWEIKER: No, not at the moment. I mean, we -- you know, just by the -- and Joe is going to comment and he should, and it's by the nature of the activity and the vibration, it just impedes, you know, the ability of the human ear to pick up anything at this point.

But I want Joe to comment on this.

SBAFFONI: Yes, I think we have explained that our concern is we do not want to breach that chamber or that pocket, because we are afraid that the water will flood that area. We are in the process right now to get ready to drill a smaller hole over there. We are going to take it down close to the coal scene, but we won't punch it through until that water is below that, so we are out of that problem time.

So you know, we would like to communicate with them also, but because of the situation we are in, we can't do that until we are either -- we've got to get that water down below that level.



QUESTION: What is the typical expectancy for that? Then how far should it be able to go in the rock, and why is it likely to go through the next shaft, the next bit will be able to make it through?

SBAFFONI: The bits break from time to time, but it's not like you go so far and you have to change your bit. I mean, this was just one of them things that the bit broke. You have to -- you have to take into consideration, everybody out there is -- I mean, everybody out there is trying to do a job and do it well. And it's possible, are they are pushing them drills a little bit more than they normally would? You know, you have to take all of those considerations into play.

But I really think that that's something that just happens. It's not something that you can predict or anything like that.

SCHWEIKER: They are -- excuse me one second. They are giving it all they got. Each and every one of us have been drill-side. You don't want to get too close, because they are the professionals. They need to be able to work unhampered, and you know, we can only do so much. But I assure you, friends, they are -- they are on it. And...


SCHWEIKER: Well, I was just informed, too, that they just -- they just had it and it dropped. So it's -- that's why I was late for a few minutes, because Dave and Joe and I were drill-side, and they were just starting to get on down there, and we were waiting with anticipation, and so we took off. But it dropped down.


SCHWEIKER: It's on the -- it's on the drill bit, yes.


SCHWEIKER: We know that -- well, you know, we would have to get the drillers in here, but I asked them that. I asked the very same questions that you are inclined to raise here. And they are out there right now, and they -- at least I walked away feeling that they were very confident that this was going to come about.

But you know, our job is to say, great, keep going, but also to start along this parallel track with the second rescue shaft. And in fact, we are doing that, and aggressively so.


SCHWEIKER: Yes, this gentleman back here, though. You had -- I know -- and I'll get right to you.






SCHWEIKER: Well, you -- this is -- my experience is that some prefer to hold that Bible like it's a keepsake and draw comfort from that. I have seen it just up the road. Me? You know, my job is just to assure them that we are doing everything we can, and I will say it a second time and I said it this morning. Mechanically, humanly, intellectually, technologically, we are doing everything that can be done. We are doing everything that can be done as aggressively and as sensibly as can be applied up there. And I think when they hear that, that it is innately reassuring. It -- you know, it's -- you know, and things haven't changed for the better in the last couple of hours.

So you know, we are leading the way, and we have an obligation to be not just straightforward, but to get up there and provide as much information as we can provide, and hopefully, they will react to those remarks and feel encouraged. Yes.

QUESTION: Governor, is it your understanding that the engineers have told you that the actual physical rescue of the miners cannot begin until the water level drops? And irrespective of the drilling operation, what is the timetable to lower that water level...


QUESTION: ... to keep that air bubble alive?

SCHWEIKER: Yes. Well, let me answer -- let me provide you two elements to my answer relevant to rescue shaft 1 and rescue shaft 2.

On rescue shaft 1, they are telling us that assuming they can pull up this drill bit, and then reapply a fresh and ready-to-go drill bit, that process is probably a solid two hours and maybe three. And then you add on the drill time to descend an additional 150 feet, as, Chancey (ph), as we all now know this kind of exercise means, and it could be five hours, it could be another seven over top that.

So to add it up, it's probably -- you know, we are looking at, I would say on rescue shaft 1, another minimum of about 7 to 10 hours, and that's it going -- and it going well.

Rescue shaft 2, and, Joe, you may want to back me up or correct me. I'm just going to -- you know, I did ask that question. They are 40 feet down now, and they've got to go another 210. Now, keep in mind in both shafts, you've got to get -- you have to tread carefully as you get above the chamber. You know, while we believe that -- as a parenthetic thought, we believe -- we are hopeful. I mean, the experts' best guess is that, you know, the water is being taken out of there, and hopefully that translates to a supportive living environment.

But for rescue shaft -- having said all of that, rescue shaft 2 is probably going to be a solid 10 hours also, assuming we don't run into any problems. And you know, we are getting the casing ready to support, you know, that big equipment that cannot do its job above muddy ground. You've got to -- you know, the concrete has got to be in there and everything. Joe, why don't you get technical here?

SBAFFONI: Yes. As far as -- as far as the second shaft, once they get that casing in, they'll continue to drill with that auger. Now, that auger is probably not going to be able to go the whole way down. In fact, I think he's got enough rock for 140 foot. He's probably going to run into hard material. When that happens, we're going to have to move that rig off and put another rig on.

What we have done by using this auger, if you can remember, when we set up for the first one, we had to do a lot of excavating, concrete work, setting the casing. Well, by bringing this auger in and doing that, we are eliminating a lot of that time. We probably cut five or six hours of the prep down.

So as soon as that drill can get drilling, he's going to drill until he can't drill anymore, then we're going to move another rig in, get him set up, which shouldn't take too long, and get going again. So we have actually tried to help ourselves in the preparation time.

QUESTION: Will the water level be low enough by the time you get ready to punch into the chamber?

SBAFFONI: That's going to -- I mean, we are going to continue to do everything we can to pump as much water as we can.

SCHWEIKER: You know, the mathematics may work our way.

QUESTION: Where is the company these days?

SCHWEIKER: Oh, they're up there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much everybody.

SCHWEIKER: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Governor Mark Schweiker there in Somerset, Pennsylvania, briefing reporters on the status of the rescue crews that are battling against time right now to reach nine miners trapped in a flooded mine shaft.

This is what we know so far. Drilling on that first shaft had to come to a halt about 11 hours ago when a drill bit broke. They are trying to repair that at this time, while still at least 150 feet from these men. That's how close it came before it broke.

Rescuers have now started on a second shaft to build another path to try to get to the trapped men.

Also, the Navy has now dispatched 50 personnel, several special underwater structures to help with this attempted rescue. They are called TRCs, Transportable Recompression Chambers. And they are cone- shaped units used as an emergency evacuation chamber, because what has happened is since these men have been trapped 300 feet below the surface for such a long period of time, they need to be decompressed, because if not, dangerous air bubbles will get in their bloodstream, and that, of course, can be fatal.

So right now, these watertight seals on -- or these units that have watertight seals have the ability to decompress when an individual has been at that type of depth when water is just rising so fast.

So that's the status of that story. Continuing to follow that, keeping our fingers crossed that they will be able to start building that second -- or getting through on that second shaft, get the bit fixed on the equipment to get through the first shaft, and rescue those nine workers that have been trapped.




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