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Mine Rescue Mission

Aired January 3, 2006 - 06:30   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Rescuers hope to reach those 13 trapped coal miners in West Virginia. They're drilling down about 260 feet right now. Rescue robot at the ready. All part of that plan to try to rescue them.
Another rescue mission under way at the same time in a collapsed ice rink in Germany. They're hoping to locate more people who are trapped inside.

And grass fires are still burning across parts of the Southwest. The upcoming forecast of high winds could spread those fires even faster.

Good morning. Welcome, everybody. Lots to get to this morning as we are covering many breaking stories.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, a busy morning for us. It's now been 24 hours since anyone has heard from those 13 miners in West Virginia. An explosion trapped them about 260 feet below the ground.

This morning rescuers, as we speak, are trying to drill about a six-inch hole into a tunnel where the miners are believed to be.

Adaora Udoji is live in Tallmansville, West Virginia.

Adaora, tell us about this effort to drill that hole and what that might accomplish.

ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Miles. Indeed, the mining company officials came out not long ago and said that the rescue teams had moved so quickly into the mine shaft, 9,200 feet in fact, and that was good news because they said it would allow them to now drill a hole big enough so that they could get a 1,300-pound robot into the mining shaft.

Now, this robot has cameras. It also has sensors so that it can detect dangerous gases like methane or carbon monoxide. And they are saying that they are moving with an abundance of caution. They want that robot to go in so that they can assess the situation and try to gain as much information as they can as to where they think those 13 miners might be.

And we believe that that drilling may already have started. It's not clear, because they said they first had to get those rescue workers out before they would start the drilling to send the robot in to get all of that information that they can at this point -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora, the drilling itself, is that particularly risky if they drill the wrong spot, for example?

UDOJI: I think that's what they were concerned about. They talked a lot about making sure that they keep safe those people who are doing all of the rescue work. And essentially they're concerned mostly about gases. They said earlier this morning that they so far have not found any evidence of great damage to the mine shaft, but what they have found is higher levels of carbon monoxide. And that is a bit concerning to them. But it did not prohibit those rescue workers from continuing to work through that mine shaft safely, they said.

M. O'BRIEN: And how much of an air supply do those 13 miners have with them supposedly?

UDOJI: Executives say they had no idea. They have no idea what kind of -- how big the space is where these trapped miners are. They have no idea how much oxygen that they do have. They are set down into the mine shaft with supplies and with air breathing equipment. But at this point not knowing how badly any of them were injured or how much debris that they find themselves trapped in, it's just not clear. They absolutely don't know -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora Udoji on the scene there at the mine. Stay with CNN and AMERICAN MORNING all throughout this ordeal.

A briefing from the mining company happens in a little less than an hour. Perhaps then we'll hear if they've made any contact with those miners.

And, of course, stay with us tomorrow as we investigate what happened to trigger that blast.

Kelly Wallace here with more for us.

Kelly, good morning again.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning again, Miles.

And we're following another developing story. This one in southern Germany, where rescue crews are searching for survivors in the rubble of a skating rink. We have some new pictures coming in to us here at CNN this morning. You see them there. Crews are using bulldozers to try and move heavy chunks of debris. Police say the roof collapsed under the weight of a heavy winter snowfall. At least nine people are confirmed dead. As many as 20 others are believed missing.

Back here in the United States, a student pilot and his instructor are said to be OK this morning after their small plane crashed into the Hudson River. New York City police and Coast Guard divers jumped into the 50-degree waters from rescue helicopters on Monday. They lifted the two men out in a basket. The cause of that crash is now under investigation.

A busy week ahead for President Bush. He's taking part today in a meeting concerning the Patriot Act. And that is the antiterrorism legislation that Congress renewed but just temporarily before Christmas break. Tomorrow the president will visit the Pentagon to discuss the war on terror.

Maurice Clarett is set to appear in court today on robbery charges. He is the former Ohio State running back who turned himself in to police Monday night. He is suspected of using a gun to rob two people on New Year's Eve. Clarett is expected to plead not guilty.

Time for another check of your forecast for this Tuesday. Bonnie Schneider at the CNN center with the latest.


S. O'BRIEN: We continue to follow this breaking news for you out of West Virginia. The rescue effort now under way for those 13 miners that are trapped underground. Could they have survived the explosion and 24 hours under the ground? We've got an update on this story just ahead.

M. O'BRIEN: We'll also talk to a man who knows what it's like to be trapped in a mine for hours on end. He was stuck in that flooded Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania back in 2002. Stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: You can see the pictures there. That's the scene in West Virginia as everyone just waits for any word of these 13 miners who are trapped underground. It's been 24 hours since anyone last heard from them. We're expecting an update at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time.

They've been trying to get to these miners in two ways. One, going through the tunnel. They've made it about 9,200 feet into that tunnel before they pulled out to begin the second way, which is drilling straight down about 260 feet to try to assess the air quality and maybe even be able to hear or see any sight of these miners who are trapped underground.

All of this, of course, is adding up to a terrible waiting game for the family member. Let's get to -- family members, rather -- Zoe Ludski of WDNE Radio. She's been reporting from the scene from the very beginning.

Thanks for being with us, Zoe. It is certainly appreciated.

First, let's talk about the family members. I know you've seen them, and it has got to be just an excruciating experience for them this morning.

ZOE LUDSKI, WDNE RADIO: It certainly is. I think they are holding up rather well (AUDIO GAP).

S. O'BRIEN: Zoe, you know what? I'm going to stop you there, because we're having trouble with your audio. Let's see if we can fix your audio problems. We're going to take a short pause from you, Zoe, and we're going to get back to you in just one moment as we check in with Miles first -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. Imagine what it would be like to be trapped beneath the surface of the Earth for hours and hours on end, dark conditions, dank conditions, not knowing if you'll ever see the light of day, for that matter your loved ones, ever again.

Well, July 2002, let's take you back and show you those pictures. You'll remember the scene in Somerset, Pennsylvania, the Quecreek Mine, as nine miners, one by one, were lifted to safety from just such a terrible dark prison.

Blaine Mehu is one of the people who was in that basket, which brought them to safety. He joins us on the line right now.

Blaine, good to have you with us. What's it like seeing this scene played out on television?

HARRY "BLAINE" MAYHUGH, QUECREEK MINER: It brings back memories. I was up all last night. I was trying to get some sleep for work today, but I think every hour I woke up, turned the TV on to see if there was any updated news or whatever. I feel so bad for the families that are going through this situation right now.

M. O'BRIEN: I can only imagine. It's hard for all of us to watch on some level. But for you particularly it's got to be difficult. Tell us, over the 77 hours, it must have been a full range of emotions. If you can give us some idea if those miners survived that initial explosion what it must be like for them now.

MAYHUGH: If they survived the initial explosion, it's going to be a rollercoaster of emotions. I mean, there's so much that we went through in that three-and-a-half days, the highs, the lows. We thought we were getting out at certain times. The drill bit broke. We were almost out of oxygen when they got the six-inch airshaft down to us. And then they got that to us in time. There was just -- ours was up and down the whole time, which I don't know if these guys' situation is going to be the same as ours or not.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, what kinds of things in those situations do you talk about with your fellow miners?

MAYHUGH: Oh, we talked about everything and anything, about our kids, about our wives, what we might do when we get out, if we get out. I mean, we prayed together. We prayed singly. I mean, you did everything down there.

M. O'BRIEN: Were there occasions when, you know, one person would be, you know, slipping into despair and everybody else would buck up that person? Is it like that where you sort of as a group sort of make a decision to keep each others' spirits intact as best you can?

MAYHUGH: Oh, yes, we definitely, we had to. Everybody at one certain time emotionally-wise they were down or whatever, and it took everyone else to pull them back up, you know, and get them back -- their spirits back up high. Yes, that much time underground, yes, sooner or later your spirits were going to get down, your emotions and everything.

M. O'BRIEN: There really is -- I mean, I know you get -- as a miner you get a certain amount of training, safety training. But there's no training for an ordeal like this, is there?

MAYHUGH: Just hopefully your rescuer -- your breathing oxygen rescuer is handy whenever the explosions happen. I just hope everything was close to them and everything like that.

M. O'BRIEN: And this is a key point. I want to bring up a key point here if I could. In your case there was no explosion. You breached an adjacent mine that had some water, and that was what trapped you. In this case, the explosion, it's an entirely different scenario with the possibility of toxic gases and so forth, not to mention the force of the explosion.

MAYHUGH: Right. It's a clear and different scenario. Don't get me wrong. The water we hit was pouring as fast as any water ever seen, but we still had time to get out of the way and try to fight our way out of the mine. And their situation, the explosion happened quick. I mean, boom, it's there. And I just hope everything works out good for their families and the miners themselves.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, we certainly are with you on that. Blaine Mayhugh, one of the nine rescued back on July of 2002. Thanks for joining us here this morning.

And we will continue to keep you posted as that drill, that same drill bit used in that incident in July 2002 makes its way toward the tunnel, where they hope these 13 miners are -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Gosh, let's hope it's as lucky as it was then back in 2002...

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: ... that it is for these 13 miners who we're waiting to hear any word from.

And let's get back to Zoe Ludski of WDNE Radio. She's been reporting, as we mentioned, from the scene from the very beginning.

Zoe, we started talking before we had audio problems about the family members. Give me a sense of how they're doing. Are they there waiting right at the scene? How are they holding up?

LUDSKI: I'll tell you what, a lot of them have moved into the church, Sego Baptist Church, a very small church, many pastors available, along with mental health counselors available through Red Cross for them there. Food and drink are being provided and a real sense of family and community at that church.

News media are being literally chased off the hill from going to that church and being kept away.

There are some members of family who have been speaking with news media. In fact, there are several clusters of people who are huddled under blankets and umbrellas right now, sitting in chairs. They have been out all night keeping a patient and concerning vigil.

I think hope is still up. This seems to be a strong faith-based community. And certainly lots of prayers coming in from around the nation for these people. I think that they are finding that very helpful.

S. O'BRIEN: It's got to be an absolutely brutal wait though. Give me a sense of the mood. I mean, as we mentioned, you've been covering this, Zoe, since the beginning essentially. Have you noticed a change in mood? Do you think people are becoming less hopeful as time passes?

LUDSKI: You know, I wouldn't say that people are becoming less hopeful. I think that people are concerned. I think the person that was on earlier, one of the miners from Pennsylvania, I think that story certainly gives hope to people here. And I don't -- I think people are very confident that these miners will be brought out.

Among the crews that are here, the news media, the emergency personnel, nobody willing to speculate on what might be going on there. Certainly we've asked the questions to Roger Nicholson (ph), the senior V.P. and general counsel for International Coal Group Incorporated, and he has said absolutely not willing to speculate. We asked what might be the conditions. There are so many unknown factors right now. Even the cause of the explosion is unknown.

So, there are too many factors to know whether or not -- what the conditions are and how well the miners are doing.

In fact, they have said that there might not even be debris. It might be that the roof has not caved in, and that the miners have not walked out because they are trained to barricade themselves in a situation like this...

S. O'BRIEN: There are certainly lots of...

LUDSKI: ... to find clean air.

S. O'BRIEN: There are certainly lots of options, I guess, at this point, and so nobody wants to speculate, which I think is a good thing as family members and everybody holds out hope for any good word about these 13 miners who are now trapped. Zoe Ludski, again, from WDNE Radio joining us with an update. She's been reporting from the scene all through the night. Thanks, Zoe. We'll check in with you again.

We're going to take a short break. We'll come back in just a moment, though. We're going to update you on this story, get the very latest. As Zoe mentioned, the situation inside the mine, how that is, is the most critical thing right now. There is a robot standing by to assess further into the mine, and they are drilling down about 260 feet to get a sense of the air quality. All of those things are going to be critical in determining if these 13 miners could have survived this accident. A short break. We continue this story in just a moment.


BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Good morning. I'm CNN meteorologist Bonnie Schneider with a look at your "Cold and Flu Report" for today.

As we take a look at the map, we'll show you that we do have outbreaks of the flu widespread actually in Utah. According to the Associated Press, the University of Utah hospital emergency room saw an influx of patients with flu-like symptoms the week before Christmas. They say that's not that much higher than typical for a busy season. But widespread activity there.

No activity in states like Louisiana. We're also seeing sporadic activity of the flu into Texas and Oklahoma. Some lucky states, though, no activity, which is good news.

Regional activity, though, reported in the southwest, including California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Stay tuned. We'll have more of AMERICAN MORNING coming up.


M. O'BRIEN: A tense scene in West Virginia. A robot to the rescue. It is hoped to be used to check the air quality in that West Virginia mine where 13 coal miners were last heard from 24 hours ago.

They've been trapped, as we say, about a day some two miles inside the mine, almost a football field depth underground. More than 250 family members and friends are waiting at a nearby church for any word.

An explosion is what started things. Drilling to check for air quality and an effort to talk with the miners is under way as we speak.

S. O'BRIEN: And we're all waiting to hear if that drilling goes well. Hopefully there is good news about the air quality, which would mean that this could be a survivable situation for those 13 miners.

Mining is obviously a very dangerous business. A very profitable business, too, though.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: That's right, Soledad. It's a business that's been really kind of booming over the past several years as the nation's energy needs have increased.

I want to talk a little bit about this particular mine owned by the International Coal Group out of Ashland, Kentucky, and controlled by a New York investor named Wilbur Ross, who is a billionaire and who has made millions of dollars investing in old industries such as the steel business and the coal business. This is a roof and pillar mine, which is sort of, as you might imagine, an old-style mine with actual timbers supporting the shafts. There are 74,000 coal miners in the United States, and it is an extremely dangerous business.

There were over 5,000 accidents in 2004. That's the latest year we have statistics for. Twenty-eight fatalities in that year. Over the past seven years the business has averaged between 26 and 42 fatalities.

And the business, if you've ever been down into a mine, as I've been in a gold mine in Nevada, it really is sort of a situation where you have to sort of shut out the fear that you have on a daily basis, because you're going down a mile underground, and you just have to put it out of your mind. And I know these miners are doing that everyday. But now this is really a situation where it's come very close to a situation that is their worst fears.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, I've got to imagine.

M. O'BRIEN: Not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic.

SERWER: Absolutely.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you, Andy.

Coming up, more on that breaking news situation in West Virginia. An urgent rescue mission under way, as we speak. Thirteen trapped miners. We'll have a live report for you and bring you up to date on where that effort is to drill a hole to sample the air in that tunnel. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Here's a new way to get your news. This is CNN Pipeline. We invite you to check this out. For example, you can see essentially the feeds that we receive in the center of your screen right now. That is CNN International speed. But if you're interested in, for example, seeing the news conference, which just occurred a couple of hours ago from the coal mine incident, upper left, click on that, and you can actually listen to that news conference in its entirety just as we do here at our desktops at CNN.

It's a great news service. It's called CNN.pipeline, and you can get to it off of our site at

S. O'BRIEN: We're approaching the top of the hour. Let's get another check of the forecast for you with Bonnie Schneider. She's at the CNN center.


SCHNEIDER: That's a look at your forecast. Stay tuned. The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

S. O'BRIEN: Bonnie, thanks. Good morning, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.


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