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From the Archives: The Miracle at Quecreek: Challenges of Pennsylvania's 2002 Mine Rescue

Author: John M. Eller

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-08-05
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In honor of the 15th Anniversary of Pennsylvyania’s Quecreek mine rescue, 9-1-1 Magazine presents and archives our original coverage of the rescue, originally published in our Nov/Dec 2002 issue.

 

Some have called it a tragic accident, some have called it a disaster, but many are calling it a “miracle.” Nine coal miners trapped 257 feet below the surface of the earth, in four feet of water, were rescued 77 hours after their ordeal began.

Rural Somerset County, approximately 80 miles south of Pittsburgh, PA was again catapulted into the worldwide spotlight only 11 months after facing the challenges of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in nearby Shanksville, approximately eight miles from the mine rescue site. Even then, Somerset County was still trying to rebuild after two devastating tornadoes ripped through its rural countryside in 1998. The tornadoes took the life of one young girl and destroyed numerous homes and commercial businesses.

At approximately 8:50 PM on the evening of July 24th, a nine-man crew of miners working in Quecreek mine were drilling when they breached a wall into the adjacent abandoned Saxman mine. This breach permitted 60 million gallons of water to quickly flood into Quecreek mine. The miners were able to alert another crew via portable radio, who waded through cascading waters approximately 1½ miles to evacuate the mine. The trapped miners stayed together and found a cavern with higher ground. They tied themselves to each other with rope so that they could all live or die together. The radio communication stopped shortly thereafter.

According to Richard Lohr, Somerset County Emergency Management Coordinator and Director of Emergency Services, personnel received the first call on the mining disaster at the new 9-1-1 Communications Center, located in downtown Somerset Borough (the 9-1-1 Center had been relocated from the basement of the County Courthouse earlier this year). Lohr immediately responded to the scene.

William Baker, 9-1-1 Director and Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator received a call from a dispatcher alerting him to the accident. Baker contacted Lohr who advised him to report to the mine at 5AM to assist with daytime operations. Meanwhile emergency crews from various resources were summoned to the scene. Among those responding to the disaster were the PA Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration, PA Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, PA Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Mining, National Mine and Health Association, PA Emergency Management Agency, the PA National Guard, the US Army, Navy, and Marines, plus state and municipal police, fire, ambulance, and paramedic units. It was a rescue of major proportions.

Both Lohr and Baker remained on the scene for the entire duration of the rescue. Both knew that their role would be one of support securing whatever resources would be needed. The local rescue personnel realized that they had never performed a rescue of this magnitude and relinquished the rescue operation to the mining officials. The foremost and immediate need was to get air into the cavern where the miners were located. “If you don’t get air to them fast, you can have suffocation” stated Scott Roberts, a mine official.

Baker arrived on location while crews were drilling a six-inch air hole into the mine in the area of the trapped miners. At approximately 5:30 AM rescue crews on the surface heard the trapped miners tapping on the drill. Rick Lohr said he was standing about 30 feet away when he heard the tapping and chills went up and down his spine. A large drilling rig with a 30-inch drill bit was requested from West Virginia. Baker said that most of the crews were much more familiar with drilling the 6-inch holes and not accustomed to drilling with the 30-inch drill bit. He complimented the drilling crews by saying that they were under a very stressful situation, because they were working against the clock. Baker said that at that time they were preparing both rescue and recovery contingency plans.

Emergency rescue equipment arrived on scene including the fire equipment from the Sipesville Fire Department under the direction of Fire Chief Mark Zambanini, under whose jurisdiction the accident occurred. Zambanini, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and has been chief since 1986. His entire family is involved in the fire service, his brother Randy is the 2nd assistant chief, his son Matt is a fire fighter, another son Chris is a junior fire fighter, his wife Robin is in the ladies auxiliary and daughter Jhenna also helps the auxiliary.

The chief said he received a telephone call to contact the 9-1-1 center. After ascertaining the seriousness of the problem, he alerted his wife to contact the women’s auxiliary to begin preparations for food for the rescue workers. The women’s auxiliary fed approximately 600 workers, three times a day, for the entire time. Local restaurants and businesses assisted with food.

The chief realized immediately that the fire companies would be designated as support personnel. However, knowing the geographic area he was able to secure some unused 36-inch casing from old gas transmission lines which was used to shore up the walls on the rescue holes. He obtained a Pennsylvania State Police escort in transporting the casings back to the mine. He was able to secure over 500 tons of 8-inch rock, which was used for roadbeds for the heavy drilling equipment and trucks that were traveling through the area. One hundred yards of concrete was obtained for excavation. The equipment and rock was donated by the New Enterprise Stone and Lime Company in New Enterprise, PA.

The Fire Company also assisted PEMA in setting up a command post. They helped to set up lighting for the helicopter landing area and initially provided air to the miners with their air rescue bags.

The chief said that 31 of 35 active members of the Sipesville Fire Department remained on scene during the rescue effort. The department has four trucks, a “first out” mini-pumper, a heavy rescue pumper, two tankers and a full stock Hazmat trailer. Other fire companies that assisted at the scene were Somerset, Berlin, Hooversville, Jennerstown and Boswell.

There were nine ambulances, several helicopters, including two Chinook Helicopters courtesy of the US Army, military personnel from all the services, decompression chambers brought by the US Navy, plus numerous other pieces of equipment.

Chief Zamanini said that the operation worked well because all organizations stayed in contact with one another. No decision was made without communication with other organizations. He requested a press conference to alert the community to refrain from sending food in order to avoid waste. However, he did request water. The following morning a tractor-trailer from Pepsi Cola was on-site. The driver unloaded an entire trailer full of bottled water.

The chief praised the efforts of Governor Mark Schweiker and President George Bush in supplying equipment and support personnel. He said that Navy divers were deployed with the decompression chambers. Governor Schweiker never left the area. The chief said the Governor went down into the pits with the drilling crews, providing words of encouragement. He was consoling family members at the fire station at 2 and 3AM. When the drilling crews finally broke through the Governor walked back with each rescued miner from the point of rescue and accompanied them to ambulances. He insisted on helping to carry the last miner that was rescued.

Amy Louviere of the PA Federal Mine and Safety and Health Administration reported to the media that the miners said, “We’ve been waiting for you” after they were lowered a telephone line through the six inch shaft.

Rachel Clark of Disaster News reported that after the miners were rescued from the mine, a service was held in the Sipesville Church of the Brethren and the people were calling the rescue a miracle. Fred Stagle was quoted “The saving of those miners is definitely a miracle of God.” Special guest speaker Charles Statler also considered the rescue miraculous. “Those miners faced two possibilities, if they died they would have been with Jesus, or if they had lived, Jesus would have been with them. That is an awesome thought.” Governor Mark Schweiker said at a press conference “Had we not run into that drill bit problem (a drill bit broke on rock at 100 feet), we would have gone down there, hit the ceiling and run into water... and then God knows what would have happened.”

Wallace Miller, the Somerset County Coroner who handled the United Flight 93 disaster, had been preparing for the worst. He was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “Let me just say I’m sure glad we didn’t have to work today.” Wilbur Miller, his father, and former Coroner said that getting the hot air down was extremely important since the water temperature was 50-55 degrees. “To get that pipe drilled down close enough to those men, right there in the spot where they were, you’d have to say is really a miracle.”

Mine superintendent John Weir spoke to the media about the ordeal as it was concluding “I want to thank God, the Governor, this team, all the guys on the drill rig. It’s a miracle. We’re gonna get ‘em out, we’re gonna get ‘em with their families.”

As in all crises situations’ counseling was offered to rescuers, the nine rescued miners and their families. A crisis team from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center arrived and immediately began counseling family members who were waiting during the rescue proceedings. Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, police, fire fighters and paramedics worked to assist those connected with the mine rescue.

The people of Somerset County needed some type of uplift, after the devastation caused by the crash of Flight 93 and 2 destructive tornadoes. The Miracle of Quecreek helped to provide that uplift and some closure to their grief.

John M. Eller retired in 2012 as Police Chief in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, a post he held since 1981. He is now active as a consultant for the Commonwealth of PA, Department of Community and Economic Development, Governor's Center for Local Government Services. In addition to being a long-time columnist for 9-1-1 Magazine, Eller has been a certified police instructor, consultant, criminal justice instructor, and weekly newspaper columnist.

For information about the 15-Year Anniversary celebrations for the successful “nine-for-nine” rescue, see these links:

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