Efforts Sped Up to Rescue Trapped Miners

Jan. 3, 2006 — -- While rescuers accelerated their efforts today to reach 13 miners who have been trapped in a West Virginia mine for more than 24 hours, officials acknowledged that it would "take a miracle" to save them.

"With each hour that passes, the likelihood of a successful outcome diminishes," said Ben Hatfield, chief executive officer of International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va.

Gov. Joe Manchin III urged West Virginians to "believe in miracles," and added, "It's going to take a miracle, I think."

Tests revealed carbon monoxide levels of 1,300 parts per million, exceeding the 400 parts per million maximum level that sustains life, Hatfield said earlier today. "We are very discouraged by the results of this test," he said.

By early evening, Hatfield said rescuers were three to five hours from reaching where the miners were last located.

"We are clearly in the situation where we need a miracle," Hatfield said. "But miracles happen."

Working Swiftly

Rescuers penetrated more than 9,000 feet into the mine and were able to drill a small hole and measure the air quality. The miners carry with them a canister that allows them to breathe good air for 60 minutes. Experts said the canister could help buy them time to find a safe area where they could barricade themselves and wait for rescue.

Hatfield said two additional holes would be drilled today to test for air quality and to listen for sounds from the miners. Safety experts agree that the rescue teams can stay safe if they do fewer repairs as they go into the mine, so they've sped up their work, he said.

In addition, Hatfield said that there had been no signs of fire or roof falls but that the explosion camaged ventilation systems in the mine. A robot that had gone ahead of the rescue workers got bogged down in mud; the rescue teams have passed it.

The missing miners are believed to be between 11,000 feet and 13,000 feet from the entrance. Rescue workers have made it 10,200 feet into the mine.

At the second drill site, crews drilled to a depth of 360 feet. The second drilling location is 1,500 feet back toward the opening of the mine, while the first was at the end of the mine. To avoid endangering the rescue crews, the drill team has waited for the mining company to give the clearance to continue the last 30 feet after rescue workers leave the mine.

Waiting, With Hope

After an explosion about 6:40 a.m. Monday, the miners were trapped in a two-mile-long shaft about 260 feet below the surface. Six other miners made it out shortly after the explosion -- the cause of which is still not known.

All night long, rescue crews made their way into the shaft, rotating out after a four-hour shift. They did not begin their mission until 11 hours after the explosion.

"We will push forward as quickly as we can as long as there is a shred of hope that we can get our people out safely," Hatfield said.

President Bush offered federal help for the rescue mission and said the nation was praying for the trapped men.

"May God bless those who are trapped below the earth," Bush said from the White House as rescue crews sped up their work.

The mine has been the site of some recent problems. Last year, it was cited for 208 violations -- 68 of which were related to high levels of dust and methane gas, factors that contribute to poor air quality. Last year alone, 57 Americans died in mines -- 22 of them in coal mines.

Families Wait

Families congregated at a nearby church and in a muddy field outside the mine to get the latest on the rescue mission. They were joined by Manchin and were together when news of the high carbon monoxide levels was announced.

"Obviously, it was devastating," said Nick Helms, whose 50-year-old father, Terry, is among the trapped miners. But he said that his father had told him once that mine air tests could be deceiving because safer levels could be just a short distance away.

A red-eyed Donald Marsh waited beneath a tent across from the mine where his half-brothe Jim Bennett was trapped. He was unwilling to give up hope.

"They ain't back where the fall is, so you don't know," Marsh said. "But that don't sound good."

Three years ago, the nation was transfixed by the plight of nine Pennsylvania miners who were trapped deep underground for 77 hours. They made it out alive -- and now 13 coal miners in West Virginia are in need of a similar miracle.

If the drillers are to have the good fortune of some communications with the miners, they have a drill rig already on site that is capable of drilling a 3-foot-wide hole for rescue purposes -- very similar to the one that was used in the Pennsylvania rescue.

Dennis Hall was one of the miners trapped in 2002. He said the most important thing was for the miners to remain optimistic.

"You will never ever train emotionally for it," he said about getting trapped in a mine. "Now the families didn't know whether we were alive. That was probably the hardest thing for me. … But you always have to think the positive. Never give up. Never, ever give up."