- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) Rescuers desperately trying to cut a tunnel to reach nine trapped coal miners 240 feet underground experienced a heartbreaking setback yesterday when their drill bit broke nearly halfway down.
The tunneling was brought to a standstill for almost nine precious hours. It took until late afternoon to get the 1,500-pound bit out of the way, clearing the way for drilling to resume with a new bit rushed in by helicopter.
"It puts you in a prayerful mood," Gov. Mark Schweiker said after the breakdown.
The miners were believed to be in a flooded, 4-foot-high passage, huddled in the dark and soaked by cold, rushing water. Officials said they feared hypothermia would set in before rescuers could break through.
The men became trapped on Wednesday night and rescuers said they had not heard a clear signal from them since midday Thursday. But the noise from the rescue equipment might be covering up any tapping sounds or other signals.
Mary Unger, 87, said her son, John Unger, was among the trapped workers.
"He's my only son," she said. "It's awful. The waiting. It seems like things just keep going wrong."
Rescuers began drilling a tunnel at the Quecreek Mine on Thursday night. It went smoothly until the drill bit broke early yesterday when it hit hard rock or coal about 100 feet down, still nearly 150 feet above the men. As crews struggled to remove the bit, work began on a second rescue shaft 75 feet away.
Mr. Schweiker said in an early afternoon news conference that it could be seven to 10 hours before either tunnel was completed. Crews then planned to drop a basket and pull the men up.
"Everyone is disappointed. This is a real roller coaster," said David Hess, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection.
There was still hope among rescue crews that some or all the miners, ages 30 to 55, were alive. The air being pumped into the chamber was about 100 degrees, raising hope that it might warm the men.
Navy Capt. Henry Schwartz, a specialist in underwater medicine, said nine decompression chambers had been brought in to treat the men.
He said the air pressure on the miners was similar to that experienced at 40 feet underwater. He said the men could suffer the bends bubbles in the bloodstream caused by rapid changes in pressure once they were rescued.
Dozens of family members kept a somber vigil at a fire hall in nearby Sipesville. They paid a brief visit to the mine Thursday. The governor said officials were meeting with them every hour to bring them up to date on the rescue effort.
There was some good news yesterday: The water level inside the mine, 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, was dropping as crews pumped it out at a rate of 20,000 gallons a minute.


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