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Rescuers Punch Through Mine Ceiling in Pennsylvania

Aired July 27, 2002 - 22:43   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We've just got some exciting news out of Somerset, Pennsylvania. CNN'S Jeff Flock standing by there.

Jeff, I take it you've heard the confirmation as well from the pool reporter that they have been able to punch through now, to get to those miners?

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed. The pool reporter from "Los Angeles Times," who was one of those out there -- we were out there earlier this day, confirms at 10:15 local time, that's about half a hour ago, and obviously we read through the lines properly with David Hess, that in fact, they wanted to make sure those family members are first to know. And of course, that's perfectly understandable. They did not want them to hear it anywhere else. And so, they have been informed. And now, we have been informed as well.

David Hess is going to join us and hopefully give us the very latest, but the governor has called him over. I suspect Governor Schweiker might come out again and just give some further details on this. But you know, we know one thing, Carol, and that is that, you know, as we said, it's because they got to go all the way through with that.

And the other sort catch there that we learned in an earlier briefing is that when you punch through this sort of a space, as the mine expert said, you can lose the ceiling, part of the ceiling. In other words you drive through there. And part of the ceiling can come down. So there's a danger of perhaps some rock coming down on the stops of these miners, even though, you know, if they're able to, they're going to get the heck out of the way, hearing this drill bit coming through. So that's a question, but we're not going to know about that condition for probably another hour, better part of another hour.

I'm being told now the governor will be out in three minutes. OK, three minutes. Well, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LIN: All right, Jeff, you asked that question earlier, at an earlier briefing. It was a great question about once they did actually punch through the ceiling of that mine shaft, what's to keep that ceiling from caving on these men?

FLOCK: They expect, in fact, part of that to happen. They are hoping there's enough open space in there, that of course, they're going to hear this drill bit coming through. They're able to get far away from it. These guys are miners. They kind of know what they're up against. And hopefully, will get out of the way. But yes, some rock is likely to come down through there.

Hopefully, the whole ceiling doesn't come down. I mean, it goes without saying that it would be the worst of tragedies to have guys survive 72 hours underground, and be killed in the rescue. So they don't want that to happen. But you know, the bottom line is what else can they do? They don't have a lot of other options at this point. They got to go that route.

LIN: There was no way to actually reinforce the ceiling then, I guess from their standpoint?

FLOCK: You'd have to be down there.

LIN: Yes.

FLOCK: And that's the way they're getting down there.

LIN: Yes.


LIN: Well one of the dangers, also to these men earlier was hypothermia. The fact that they've been able to punt this water out, do they think that these mean are still standing in water? Or are they standing now in a dry space?

FLOCK: Well, not only the water they hope is, number one, they pumped a lot of water out. Number two, they had these hot pressurized air coming in there. So they hope that expanded the space to give them more of an opportunity to be dry, but also that was hot air, basically, being pumped down through there. So they are hopeful. And pardon me for looking around, because I'm hearing stuff. And we may get the governor. They were hopeful that that hot air made that living space a whole lot more livable and palatable and perhaps removed that hypothermia concern. So that's what they're hoping, anyway.

LIN: Jeff, from a technological standpoint, what are still the unknowns? You know, the governor has talked how they've rehearsed these scenes that he himself even went into the Navy capsule, just to seethe space allowed for these men. But they've tried everything they can. What is it, from a technical standpoint, do they not know that may not work at this point?

FLOCK: Well, of course, the scariest of the unknowns, and the governor when asked about earlier today, said, "I'm not going to go there." And that's the question of what happens, if they go down, the camera sees nothing, they sent the EMT mine rescue expert down in the capsule and he doesn't find anything? That would be about the worst. And his response to that was, "Yes, we've thought about it, and I'm not going to say anymore about it." Obviously, you know, something like that happens, the thought is they're somewhere else. And you know, you're at square one at that point. You know, they really feel like that's happening that they got back in terms of feedback on Thursday, told them that they were there. Whether or not they're still alive, at least somebody was alive to send that signal back up the shaft.

LIN: You mean, Jeff, there's...

FLOCK: I just want to go see -- I'm just going to ask if I can go see and if we can get a report on the governor. He's walking now, OK.

LIN: Sure, OK.

FLOCK: I am told he is walking now. So keep chatting and we'll have in a moment.


FLOCK: He's looping around here.

LIN: Real quick question on what you just said. So Jeff, there is a possibility that these men, in the hopes of trying to find their way out, may have taken another route down there, may actually not be in this pocket?

FLOCK: Not that, it's possible they would not be in that pocket. I mean, is it possible that that tapping was somehow water in the shaft and it banged, you know, banged -- there was some debris that was banging back or something? I suppose anything's possible. The fact is nobody has seen down there. Nobody knows.

This is what they believe is that that's where they are, and that they hit the right pocket. And that's where we're at. But again, until you get down there, you don't completely know. And again, I'm looking behind us. And the curious thing I don't know and if the -- John, are you able to widen out a bit? John Scher (ph), are you with me? Are you able to widen out a bit? This is an abandoned grocery store that we have been using as a briefing center. And I don't know if you can tell, but the -- you know, the produce aisle and the bakery -- the signs are still up there. So it's sort of an odd scene that you see here, but this is what's been used as this briefing center. And the governor is making his way back out around, after having communicated with the scene. So we're just waiting on that.

LIN: Yes, I feel for the men. It sounds like he's losing his voice at this point.

FLOCK: He is. And you know, he's coming. I don't know if you can see him back off in the distance. And I want to make sure all of our colleagues here can see. So I'm going to sit down, Carol, and perhaps you can see that the governor now, accompanied by his press secretary and David Hess, who hopefully will join us, is headed to the podium. And I presume he will confirm what we are now believing and give us the very latest and the very next thing.

GOV. MARK SCHWEIKER, PENNSYLVANIA: This is not going to take too long. I'm very happy to report that at about 10:16, we did break through. We broke through down at 239.6, and it's certainly an encouraging development and the operation now is ongoing. We ready ourselves for this second step, as it relates to the real rescue effort, and start to take the steel out of there, and hopefully we're going to be good to go.

The other thing I'll add is we have the belief that we're going to set up a communications device, telephone, send it down that six- inch pipe that is not too far from rescue shaft one, and under ideal circumstances, perhaps we can make contact down there. We'll see what comes of it.

I don't want to say anything more than that, but that's the outlook right now. So...


SCHWEIKER: No, I've been here and unable to put in time with the families. If I can just finish this, and it's important, so you understand the amount of time that has transpired between when the breakthrough occurred and as I come back out here and some -- at least 30 minutes later, that it's for good reason.

One, we had to confirm at this location that it, in fact, had occurred. And two, as governor, knowing that I made a commitment to the families that they would hear first about such significant developments, that as those minutes went by, it was dedicated to the step of informing families first, and at no time during this entire process will I permit anyone who is supporting this operation to do otherwise, and so I'm happy to report to you that the families did hear first, and so I don't -- but I don't know. I don't have the remarks at hand.



SCHWEIKER: Exhilarated.


SCHWEIKER: I think we're quite a few hours from giving you a concrete answer to that answer. It's probably going to be at least two hours, as we're now in the process of bringing up steel, literally moving closer with the rescue capsule, and we're probably looking at at least two hours before we're ready to field those kind of questions and give you good answers too, rather than vagaries.

Thank you.

LIN: All right, the governor of Pennsylvania there confirming that at 10:16 tonight, they did break through to the mine shaft. They're sending a telephone down, hoping that one of these men will phone home or if they can hear, at least, how they're doing and if anyone's still alive. Jeff Flock, are you still there? Jeff, I'm hoping you can hear me. Jeff Flock's been standing by there. He's trying to get a hold of David Hess, who is Pennsylvania's, he's with the Department of Environmental Protection.

Jeff, have you been able to get a hold of David Hess?

FLOCK: I do have David with me.

LIN: Great.

FLOCK: And obviously, this is wonderful news, yes?

DAVID HESS, PA., ENVIR. PROTECTION DEPT.: It's absolutely wonderful news. I mean, it's something we've been working for, for the last days, but we can't -- we give ourselves maybe one second of celebration, because we all know darn well that the hard, hands-on rescue effort starts now.

FLOCK: I hear that. I just got to ask you, were you always confident you were going to get to this moment?

HESS: I think were always confident. We had setbacks along the way, but we had determined drilling crews out there. We got determined folks working on this. And it was a real team effort. And it feels very good.

FLOCK: OK. What can you tell me that I don't know? You've already started pulling that bit up, yes?

HESS: We've started to do that. We have M. Shaw, a federal mining agency is putting down a communications device in the small, six inch hole, to hopefully hear and make contact with anyone that may be in that mine void.

FLOCK: Yes, I'm interesting in this. Communication device, is it a phone? What sort of device is going down there? And why is it that you're able to put it down that hole now, than you weren't able to before?

HESS: We were able to put it down now because the water level was down. We didn't have to worry about the air pressure in the mine. So it was a straight shot right down into the mine.

FLOCK: And again, what is it? Is it a -- what kind of phone?

HESS: It's a microphone and a two way communications device.

FLOCK: So has it got like a speaker on it so somebody can hit it? Or they got to pick it up or what's the deal?

HESS: It's a device so they can communicate with this surface.

FLOCK: So under ideal circumstances, that's far away -- you know, we talked earlier about the potential that ceiling coming down. Theoretically, they would've gotten away from where they heard the big bit coming through. And maybe they would be closer to where the six inch hole was?

HESS: They could be. And obviously, that drill coming down 26 inches wide made a lot of noise and a lot of commotion. So they probably knew it was coming long before. So they're probably sitting there waiting for it, but obviously, we have to await more information about what's happening down there.

FLOCK: Have you already put this communications device down now, as we're speaking now?

HESS: Our understanding is that M. Shaw is in the process of doing that right now. So that'll take some time.

FLOCK: Right. And I hate to keep trying to nail you down. We know it's going to take about an hour to get the big bit out, to get that communications device down?

HESS: It shouldn't take that long. Probably only a matter of 10 minutes or 15 minutes. It's not long at all.

FLOCK: OK, so walk us through. Take -- the big bit comes out. Then you've got to put a crane in place to put the basket down?

HESS: The crane is already in place and ready to go. The rescue basket is already in place and ready to go. So it's a -- we have everything staged now and all of the resources there, so that it can go as quick as it can go.

FLOCK: Right. And so, as soon as you put them in -- then that thing goes down, the bucket goes down. It's got the camera on it. And so, we're -- how long does it get that bucket to go down? I'm trying to put it together. If it's an hour to get the thing out, the drill bit out, and then how long to take the camera to go down?

HESS: Well, remember, the hole right now is -- doesn't have any metal casing on it. It just has the rough rock. So what you're going to be faced with is a situation where you're dropping this heavy metal capsule down through this hole. It's going to take some time, maybe half...

FLOCK: This is going to bounce around a little bit and maybe get caught?

HESS: Sure and there could be rocks sticking out the sides. So it's going to -- it could be tricky, depending on what's in the hole, maybe a half hour, 45 minutes. Just depends what's there.

FLOCK: So an hour getting the drill bit up, another half hour maybe or 45 minutes something getting that down there. But then, that gives you real time video, correct, in terms of the camera?

HESS: That's right, and audio. And there's a two way communications device on that as well to the surface.

FLOCK: But under a perfect circumstance, you might have already been talking to somebody down the six inch? HESS: That's the advantage of working quickly to get something down the six inch hole, because there's nothing protruding.

FLOCK: What am I forgetting?

HESS: You're forgetting a few more prayers, because we're going to need them. We do have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

FLOCK: David, appreciate it. Thank you so much.

HESS: Thank you.

FLOCK: Appreciate the time. We'll be back with you.

HESS: Thank you.

FLOCK: Thank you, sir. OK, wow. They did it.

LIN: Yes. That's just great news.

FLOCK: This part. And this is part one. Back to you.

LIN: So Jeff, it sounds like, with this two way communications device, how soon will they will be able to hear anything if anyone is still down there?

FLOCK: He says it shouldn't take very long to get the -- and again, just to clarify, they're putting it down the six inch hole. They couldn't put it, you know it was the first thing we asked. Why can't put something down the six inch hole? You got the air coming through? They got to maintain the bubble. That was a pressurized hole. They were pumping air down there. They couldn't put anything else in it.

Now because they've burst through, and everything that pressures equalized, they can put something down there. They're putting that down there now. He said it won't take very long. You know, 15 minutes or so to get it all the way down there. It could be very soon that if there are people down there, alive, somebody could be communicating to the surface. We could have great news very, very soon.

LIN: So Jeff, if they were able to punch through at about 10:16, and they're -- they've already lowered this two way communications device, I hate to sound pessimistic, but don't you think we would've heard by now if they'd heard voices?

FLOCK: You know, it's like drilling through rock, Carol. Things take longer than you would expect, you know. He's saying, you know, you've got these holes that are -- have been, you know, drilled by a bit. There's no casing around there. So it's not like you're dropping something down a pipe that's clearly a straight shot. You know, you got rocks and things protruding there.

So it's hard to get something down. You can't just, you know, drop it down easily. And that's a six inch hole. So you know, like this. And there's a communications device. So how long that takes it to get down there, and then you know, who knows? It may be that there are people alive down there, but not able to get to it or not even able to communicate. They're still alive, but they're just not able to talk. You know, again, there's a lot of unknown out there.

LIN: All right. I know we don't want to speculate in worst case scenario. And we're always hoping for the best case scenario. Obviously, we're dealing with information as it comes in. So I appreciate you just kind of working it out for us. You've watched the players in this, Governor Schweiker, now Davis Hess over the days and the hours, as the story has unfolded, Jeff. What is your sense from them? How optimistic are they? How are they feeling? How delicate is the stage at which we're at?

FLOCK: They are incredibly optimistic. And I think in some sense that's the only way they could go. They've got a possibility of live people down at that mine. Now, you know, if you pin an expert down about this, you know, what are the chances somebody is alive? Hadn't heard anything since middle of the day Thursday. These guys have been washed through a mine, they have been trapped underground for 72 hours. There is any number of ways they could be dead.

But you know, no one talks about that, but clearly, that possibility is on everybody's mind. But if you have any chance at all there is a possibility somebody down there, if, in fact, that was tapping from those guys, even you know, a day and a half ago, any chance at all you've got live people down there, you're going to go get them. And in fact, even if they knew they were dead, they were going to go get them. But they wouldn't have gone to get them in the way that they have now, and this has been an extraordinary effort and continues to be an extraordinary effort, and I think they are -- they are hopeful.

And they do hang to that tapping and (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They got some feedback. They're not just going on, you know, a goose chase here. They really think they've got something there, so (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LIN: Right, right, absolutely, Jeff, and I know to some it may sound like we're speculating here, but you and I have been part of rolling coverage for so long -- these are the questions that we do have to ask, because it really frames the delicate nature of what it is that they're trying to do and their best hopes and their worst fears and all of that hanging in the balance in the next couple of hours. So, thank you so much for joining us and bringing us this story live from Somerset, Pennsylvania.




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