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Press Conference on Trapped Miners

Aired July 25, 2002 - 11:37   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We understand that press conference is just about to begin. It is in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Let's go there now live.


DAVID HESS, PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: ... it is very important that we get accurate information out, but also respect what is going on with this particularly difficult operation.

My name is David Hess. I'm secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Our Deep Mine Safety staff is working very closely with the company here, and we have been getting excellent cooperation all the way around in this rescue operation.

I would like to give you a brief update, but I also want to let you know who else is here. We have Joe Sbaffoni from our Deep Mine Safety operation is here. We have Kevin Strikland (ph) from Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. And we have John Weir from the Black Wolf Coal Company, who's involved in this accident today.

Just to give you a brief update, we have coming in a large drill to drill 36-inch hole that we hope will end up in the mine void where we still believe there are miners alive. And that has not changed since this morning. We do still believe that we have miners alive. We don't, obviously, know how many but there are still indications of that, but we're -- this is a very tricky operation. You have lots of different people cooperating on this effort and a lot can go wrong, unfortunately. But we're all working together to get a good positive result.

That drill should be here, the large drill should be here in early afternoon. I think many of you saw them setting a casing to drill that hole up there. The preparations are just about finished for drilling that hole. We are also in the process of drilling at least two additional holes in different parts of the mine, in order to set pumps and -- the idea being that we would pump additional water out of the mine at different locations to help relief the pressure that may be coming in on the location where we think the trapped miners are.

So we're trying a number of different things in hopes of not only locating the trapped miners, but also effecting a rescue. And at this point, I would like to entertain any questions you may have. That's a very brief update. Do we have any questions for me or any one of the individuals coming before.

QUESTION: What is the time frame you are looking at? Earlier this morning, you had said that the biggest drill would get here around noon, and at 18 hours from that point -- can that be done any more quickly than that?

HESS: Well, the large drill's coming from West Virginia. And Yost Drilling, actually a Pennsylvania company, is making sure that gets here as fast as it possibly can. Again, that's a big piece of equipment. It takes time to move over the highways. I might add that the state police have waived permit requirements, the usual permit requirements, to make sure this equipment gets here.

It is a matter and a function of time. It could take as long as 18 hours to drill that hole. We just don't know how long it specifically is going to take. But it's a waiting game at this point.

QUESTION: You don't have any additional information regarding how large that adjacent mine was, how large a pool of water was in there, and why it is they apparently didn't know there was another mine right up against the wall of this one?

HESS: Well, I'll start to answer that, but I would like it call on Joe. When we permit a new mine that is next to an old mine, it's not the fact that we didn't know that mine was there; we require at least 200 feet of solid rock between a new mine and an old mine. And that mine, the abandoned mine in this case, was abandoned, we believe, sometime in the 1950s. The mine maps that we were relying on to make that sort of judgment apparently were wrong. But all that will be investigated as part of the follow-up to this incident.

QUESTION: David, what are the indications that you said that these workers may still be alive?

HESS: Again, it's based on the early indications this morning that they -- when we banged on a pipe up on the surface, we heard return sounds. So we are continuing to get some indications. We haven't heard them bang on the pipe, but we still believe and are optimistic that some may be alive.

But again, I would caution this is a very tricky and dangerous business. And I don't want to raise expectations.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the other half of that question, which was how large do you think that adjacent mine is, and how large a pool of water is in there?

JOSEPH SBAFFONI, DEEP MINE SAFETY: Right now, the best we can figure is we'd have approximately between 50 and 60 million gallons of water that has come into the mine and is still coming into the mine.

QUESTION: Can you put some perspective on that for us in terms of how big of an area that would cover, if the size of the field we're on right now -- or what?

SBAFFONI: It's hard it put it in perspective, but naturally, it's a very large body of water and it has come in at a very high rate. .

QUESTION: Can you give us any perspective as to where you believe these miners may be alive and where the water is coming in at elevation between the two, relative elevation differences?

SBAFFONI: The elevation where the miners are trapped is approximately around 1,830 to 1,840. The elevation of the water that we have at the pit mouth is close to that, approximately the same elevation. But with the hole that we put down this morning, what we have is pressurized the 6-inch drill stills down into the mine, and we've tried to create an air bubble there.

And if we would have had water (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there, from what the drillers are telling me, that we would have seen a lot of water coming up the outside of that pipe. We haven't seen that yet. And we still had some indications that we're getting some return sounds. Every so often, we hit on a drill still and we get some seismic equipment set up there from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and there's indication we are getting some return signals.

QUESTION: You just said that water is rushing in there very quickly. Can you pump enough air into there to counter that? What are your concerns about being able to keep up with the amount of water that is coming in there quickly, as you just said.

SBAFFONI: Right now, what we are trying to do is exactly what you just said, is to try keep up with water. We have some pumps set at the pit mouths, where the portals are where these employees go and out, normally, every day. We are also in the process of drilling some additional holes to add some additional pumps.

QUESTION: Joe, if there is water in this mine, what temperatures are we talking about, and is that a concern as far as some of these miners being submerged even partially in this water?

SBAFFONI: Mine temperature at this time of the year, and with the ground water, you are looking at between 50 and 60 degrees. Over an extended period of time that probably could pose a problem for hypothermia.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Are they able to stand? Are they sitting? How high is the water? Can you even tell us anything like that?

SBAFFONI: Well, we don't know the exact conditions underground, but that area of the mine is approximately 48 to 52 inches in thickness. And that's where they would be located.

QUESTION: "Thickness" -- what does that mean?

SBAFFONI: The height of the coal (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: So they are obviously not standing then. SBAFFONI: No.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) It's hard to say, I know, but how high do you think the water is right now?

SBAFFONI: There's no way to know.

QUESTION: When you say you're getting some return signal, do you mean tapping...

SBAFFONI: Yes, that's the indication that we had before we came down here.

QUESTION: When was the last tapping?

SBAFFONI: Right now, we are -- we're continuously tapping on our stills outside. But like I said, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has set up their seismic equipment, and they are getting indications that they are getting return signals.

QUESTION: And when was the last one?

SBAFFONI: Right before we came down here.

QUESTION: Can you tell us...

QUESTION: Do you know who all the miners are? And have you been in touch with all their families?

SBAFFONI: I'll leave the company representative to answer that question. John Weir -- John.


QUESTION: Do you know who all the miners are who are trapped, and have you been in touch with all of their families.

WEIR: We know all of the miners that are trapped, and we still have some family members, sons, that are stationed somewhere that are being contacted.

QUESTION: So you are staying in constant contact with them, then?

WEIR: Yes.

QUESTION: Are they all men? Are all nine of them men? Are all nine of the miners...

WEIR: Yes.


WEIR: Yes.

QUESTION: For miners who got out, have you spoken with them? Where are they now? Were any of them injured or any of those men hospitalized? What's their situation?

WEIR: I haven't talked to any of them. I don't know that.

QUESTION: Secretary Hess. What's the potential -- and this might be for your mine safety director -- what's the potential of some methane gas down in there and the chance of maybe having an explosion here?

HESS: Joe?

SBAFFONI: I would say at this stage probably very minimal. The old mine there, when we first drilled into the void, we had a little indication of low oxygen. But once we started putting the compressed air down into the mine, that seemed to clear up pretty quick.

QUESTION: I was going to ask you: Is there a way to sample the mine gasses down there from the surface?

SBAFFONI: Well, right now, no. Right now, no.

QUESTION: What did you just say about hypothermia? Is that a concern.

SBAFFONI: Well, the mine temperature and the water temperature is probably between 50 and 60 degrees. That's pretty cool if you are in water for an extended time like that.

QUESTION: Can you give us perspective here about how big of an area they are actually trapped in and whether or not there's much room for them to move. Because you said that water keeps rushing in there. What we're looking for some idea of how big after an area they're actually trapped in, whether or not there is any way for them to move as that water keeps getting higher.

SBAFFONI: Well, the area where they're at is approximately 200 to 300 feet from the face of where they cut through into these old works. So there isn't much room for them to go. You know, we figure they are probably pretty close to where that pipe is in the mine, where our drill stills are in the mine.

QUESTION: Will you able to exit those miners from that 36-inch hole (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

SBAFFONI: Yes, what we are drilling is a 30-inch hole, and that's the purpose of it. We will be able to bring miners out there.

QUESTION: So I guess a follow-up on this question is is there any room for any lateral movement, for these miners to move laterally, if the water would rise any higher?

SBAFFONI: Yes, the entries are open and the crosscuts. So I mean, there is room to move around.

HESS: One of the things I might want to add is I've been in touch with Governor Mark Schweiker this mourning, to keep him up to date on everything that's happening here. And obviously, his support of this operation is 100 percent. And anything we needed, he said, just let me know and we will get it. So everyone is pulling together on this.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) rescuing these guys. Like, who is actually out on the site right now trying to help (OFF-MIKE).

HESS: Joe.

SBAFFONI: Who is on the site trying to do the rescue?


SBAFFONI: It's a joint effort between the coal operator, Mine Safety and Health Administration and Deep Mine Safety. And there's also been a lot of support from neighboring mines, neighboring miners. I mean, it is a pretty concerted effort, and a lot of people are involved.

QUESTION: Can you give us an idea of what it's like over at the site right now? Are people still trying to do stuff, or are is everybody basically waiting for this rig to get here?

SBAFFONI: They're in the process of preparing for that rig to come in. They are just in the process of finishing it up. They had to set a 36-inch casing and pour concrete around it and do some work. And they were just in the process of finishing that when we were leaving. So when that rig comes in, it will be ready to pull in and set up.

QUESTION: Can you describe the process for us once 30-inch hole is drilled? Then what? Once the hole is there, the casings are in place, how do you go down and get them out, or what do you do? What's the process?

SBAFFONI: It is like a basket or a bucket that you can hook on to a crane, crane-type hoist and drop down there, and it has the ability to put miners in and bring them back up.

QUESTION: One at a time?

SBAFFONI: I think it'll fit two.

QUESTION: Will have you to put rescuers down into the mine, assuming that you may have to help these people?

SBAFFONI: If that be the case, we probably could do that.

QUESTION: How do you drill into the space they are in without risking injury in the process?

SBAFFONI: Well, whenever you get close to the coal scene, naturally you slow down the drilling, and they are going to hear that. That's not something that comes quiet. They are going to hear that noise, and they are going to know to get out of the way.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a bit about the seismic monitoring and at what time you actually detected those returns?

WEIR: The seismic equipment that's being use said something similar it what would be used after an earthquake to find survivors and give us a better indication as to the exact location where they may be. And I wasn't over at the mine when these latest results came in, but apparently, what they do is they set geophones up, similar to microphones on the surface, and it allows for a lot better listening, and you can listen to distances up to 500 to a thousand feet underground. And in this case, we are looking at a distance of about 231 feet. And we know the general area where they are located at. And apparently, we got some indications back that there is still people in that particular area.

QUESTION: Can you speak a little about the safety record?

QUESTION: Roughly what time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right before we came over here.

WEIR: Approximately 15 minutes ago.

QUESTION: Do you know from the monitorings, if that's coming from more than one area, or if more there is more than one person maybe making these monitors.

WEIR: It would be from one area. We have no idea how many people are in that area.

QUESTION: Can we assume that everybody is trapped in the same location?

WEIR: I think that's a fair assessment.

QUESTION: When they drill, it will come down bringing the basket up, that goes through the coal bank. This may be a silly question, I apologize if it is. With all of the water there, what is to stop the water from coming up, almost like a fissure?

SBAFFONI: That's a good point. And you know, that's why we are trying to keep that pressure on down there, and also try to do everything we can to pump water, try to lower than water.

QUESTION: Do they carry any survivor gear?

HESS: Just so you understand, we are trying to do two things. One is to put air into the void to keep the water back, and we're going to drill additional holes, at least two or more, to pump water out of the mine at different locations. So that we can try to relieve the pressure, if we can. As Joe said, there is a lot of water down there, but we will do everything we can.

QUESTION: Given the scenario you just described, what is your best guess as to when you can hopefully pull them out of there?

HESS: I don't know if we can give an estimate at this point or -- Joe. SBAFFONI: I think we will have a better shot at that once we get the rig in there and he starts drilling, and then he will probably be able give us a good estimate as to how long he thinks it will take it reach the coal center.

QUESTION: Is there a water source? When we talked to Betsy earlier, we were under the impression this is all ground water that's filled the adjoining Saxon (ph) number two mine. Once that flows out, is there more water coming in?

HESS: Well, obviously water tries to seek its own level. As this goes down, the other mine fills up. But there is an awful lot of water down there, as Joe said.

It will flow as long as it is seeking it's own water. I don't think -- we have not seen a decrease of water flowing into the mine.

QUESTION: Can anyone tells us about the safety record of this particular mine?

HESS: My understanding -- or, Joe, do you want to? My understanding is this mine has not had a problem. It's a new mine. And the record has been very good.

QUESTION: What kind of mining were they doing?

HESS: It was room and pillar mining.

Yes, that's right, they were not. Simply room and pillar, not removing the pillars, right.

SBAFFONI: At this stage, there is no way really to guarantee what's really happening there. You know, we think we are doing a lot of good with that compressed air. But we really don't know at this stage.

HESS: You are looking to drill two others to pump water out. How close could they be geographically to the hole through which you're pumping air.

SBAFFONI: They are down in the other section of the mine. I would say they are approximately 2,000 or 3,000 feet away from it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: How much water could you pump out with those two new (ph) drill bores going in at the same time? you have 50 or 60 million gallons of water. Will that slow it down? Do you have any idea?


SBAFFONI: That's going to be determined by the amount of inflow. Depending on how much water is flooding into the mine, you naturally would be able to stop it from rising, and to get any kind of gain on it, you would have to pump more than what's coming in.

QUESTION: How many gallons...

SBAFFONI: Yes, we don't know at this stage for sure what we have flowing in. It depends on the types of pumps they put in and so forth. So there is a lot of questions that are tough to answer.

HESS: Other questions?

I wanted to mention, we are going to schedule a 4:00 briefing today at this location to give you an update of what's happening this afternoon.

QUESTION: How close is the water to the core, do you know? And is there any opportunity that we might be able to rescue some of these people from the mine itself, from the...

SBAFFONI: No, the mine between where these employees would be now and where the portals is probably totally inundated.

QUESTION: Can the divers get in there? With the diving equipment?

SBAFFONI: You are talking a mile. If you are talking a mile, and you've ever been involved in any type of diving action, I don't think there is any kind of feasibility whatsoever for something like that.

HESS: And you're also dealing with a lot of pressure as well.

I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Were they trained in any kind of survival training? Would they have any gear on them that they could possibly survive?

SBAFFONI: They are required to use -- it's self contained, self rescues. Now, normally, those are used if you have a fire or a problem like that, you can put them on, and you can breath for a certain length of time in a toxic atmosphere. Could they use them in a situation with water? Yes, but those SCSRs are probably good for approximately an hour.

QUESTION: What are the requirements for the accuracy of mine mapping, when you're mining in a previously mined area like this? Is that a factor here.

HESS: As I mentioned before, when we do permanent new mine like this, we require at least 200 feet of solid rock between a new mine and an old mine. And we do require certified mine maps, surveyed mine maps, again, to best as humanly possible, to locate where those abandoned mine workings are. But again, I would caution, Pennsylvania has a hundred-year history or more of mining, and those maps are not a hundred percent accurate.

We will be doing as MSHAR (ph) will, after we get through with the rescue phase, an investigation, and try go back and figure out what happened so that we can learn from this experience. HARRIS: This has been David Hess, who is with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and he's been briefing the press about the situation of these nine trapped miners, nine men who were trapped 300 feet below the surface of the earth in a mine area, which we understand they have got some room it move around in. It may be some three feet by 12 feet area they happen to be stuck in. He did tell us that they can move around some. But the big concern is about the water that has been rushing into that chamber where they are right now. They have been trying some different tactics to relieve the pressure of that water coming in. They've been pumping air in there. They believe they have begun that process soon enough to save these men down there.

They have not heard any tapping very recently, they say, but they have been hearing tapping down there all morning, and they will continue to try to contact the men down there. They are trying to create an air bubble with this process. And what they are waiting on right now, is they're waiting on what is being called a big hole -- I guess a huge hole digger, some kind of piece of equipment that right now is in West Virginia. And it has to be transported over the highways.

So they say this equipment is so large, it moves very, very slowly, and it'll take some hours, a number of hours, and they believe up to or 12 hours or so to move it from West Virginia to bring it in place in Somerset, West Virginia. Once it does get there, it can drill a hole about 30-inches wide, and then they say they may be able to get a basket down to those men. They are still trying to locate exactly where these men are trapped in that chamber, but they are still trying to make contact with them. And again, with the water that's rushing in from another mine that is adjacent to the mine these men happen to be in, they say that temperatures down there now may be in the 50 or 60 degree range. So if these men stay down there for very much longer, there is some concern with them suffering some hypothermia, their body temperature being lowered.




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