- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

XIANGNING, China | Rescuers paddled the rafts with their hands in the dark, flooded mine shaft, letting out air so the inflatable vessels could squeeze through tight passages. From deep in the tunnel came the call: “Can you get me out of here?”

Replied a rescuer: “Since we got in, we will definitely be able to take you out of here.”

And they did, pulling 115 miners to safety Monday, their eighth day trapped in the northern China mine. Emergency teams were trying to reach 38 others still in the Wangjialing mine as of Monday night.

Even so, the rescue was a rare bit of good news for a coal-mining industry that is notoriously the world’s deadliest. Chinese officials called it “a miracle.” State TV repeatedly broadcast images of cheering and crying rescuers — a cathartic moment for the country observing “grave-sweeping day,” a traditional time for remembering the dead.

“This is probably one of the most amazing rescues in the history of mining anywhere,” said David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government.

Some miners told rescuers of eating tree bark and drinking the filthy water to survive. Some strapped themselves to the shafts’ walls with their belts — or similarly suspended themselves using their clothes — to avoid drowning while they slept.

One miner “showed us the sawdust from his pocket. He told me it was hard to chew,” the leader of one of the rescue teams, Chen Yongsheng, told reporters. Mr. Chen gave the most detailed, firsthand account of the rescue efforts and his thrill at reaching the miners. When the rafts got stuck in the narrow shaft, Mr. Chen said his team floated bags of a nutrient solution down the tunnel to provide sustenance for the trapped miners.

Work crews had been racing to pump out the flooded mine since March 28, when workers digging a tunnel for the new mine accidentally breached an old shaft filled with water.

Rescuers had no signs the miners were alive until April 2, when tapping sounds from deep underground were heard on a metal pipe lowered into the shaft. But the high murky waters turned back rescuers Saturday, seemingly until more pumping would clear enough space to use the inflatable rafts. The rescue teams spotted lights from miners’ headlamps swaying in the tunnel.

Then, the first survivors were floated by raft toward the mine entrance early Monday, where medical teams waited by the water’s edge.

Within hours, the trickle turned into a wave of rescues. Dozens of miners emerged, put on stretchers — their bodies wrapped in blankets and their eyes covered to shield them from the light — and carried to ambulances.

“This morning, we wished for a miracle to happen again,” said Liu Dezheng, a spokesman for the rescue operation. “Six hours later, miracles have really happened.”

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