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West Virginia Mine Rescue Mission

Aired January 3, 2006 - 08:34   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Back to this coal mine explosion. The coal mine explosion in West Virginia really triggers memories of a similar accident in a mine not very long ago. A hundred miles north of the Sago Mine in West Virginia is the Quecreek Mine. It's across the state line in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Now back in the summer of 2002, if you'll recall, nine miners got trapped in a mine. It took three days to rescue them. Joining us this morning from Somerset, Pennsylvania is Joseph Sbaffoni. He led many of the rescue efforts at Quecreek, also Dennis Hall. He's one of the rescued miners. Gentlemen, thank you for talking with us.
And, Joseph, we'll start with you, if I may. At this point, given the information that we have just gotten in these news updates about the positive news, methane levels, and the oxygen levels and the very disappointing news of carbon monoxide levels, do you think this accident is survivable by those 13 miners who are inside?

JOSEPH SBAFFONI, PA. BUREAU OF DEEP MINE SAFETY: Well, I don't think there's any question that we just can't give up hope. This is a rescue effort I think that's been made very clear by the rescuers involved down in West Virginia. And, you know, they're going to see this through to the end. That's their job. Their job is to go in there, try to rescue these miners, and the rescue team members and the state of West Virginia and the Mine Safety and Health Administration is doing the very best job that they can do.

S. O'BRIEN: Dennis take us back, if you will, this take us back to 2002. Was there times when you personally gave up hope as you were trapped in rising waters, holding on to a shelf essentially for dear life? What was going through your mind?

DENNIS HALL, QUECREEK MINE SURVIVOR: There was a lot of highs and lows, yes. But for the most part, each and every one of us that was trapped underground, we never give up hope, and that's one thing you have to keep on the top side of your mind. And to help them guys that are trapped underground right now, there has been to be a lot of hope and a lot of praying. And the good Lord will prevail.

S. O'BRIEN: We are looking at pictures.

HALL: Never give up.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, no, we've heard that a lot. And many family members today are saying the same thing today. We are looking at pictures back in 2002 when they brought you up in those little pods, the capsules, and it was the most remarkable thing, because after three days, many people really feared the absolute worse. What was it like the moment that that six-inch drill broke through, and really for the first time you were getting some fresh air, and you knew that people were close and on their way?

HALL: It was a godsend, it really was. We -- it brought our hopes real high because we knew that the rescue efforts were under way. And whenever the six-inch airshaft punched through, we knew it was a life giving thing, because we desperately need that air. We were down to getting lower than 18 percent of oxygen, and that's not good.


HALL: Guys were gasping for air at times. We were overexerting ourselves, you know, building walls, so we needed more oxygen than we would have needed if we would of been at rest, but we were busy.

S. O'BRIEN: Joseph, it's the same drill in this case as was the drill that bore into the Quecreek Mine. But obviously, a very different case, because what they're looking at, Joseph, is the air quality and what that could mean for the miners. Tell me a little bit about this protective barrier that we've heard about and how realistic it is that they could of gotten in this protective barrier and avoided this poisonous carbon monoxide?

SBAFFONI: Yes, the coal miners are trained that whenever they're in this type of situation, a fire or an explosion, the first recourse is to try to escape. If they can't, they're taught to try to barricade themselves in and to try to isolate the fresh air that they have in the area where they're located from the atmosphere that isn't breathable. So that would be the hope here, that the miners were not initially, you know, killed in the explosion, that they were able to find an area where they could barricade themselves, and try to maintain a good atmosphere around them and wait for the rescuers to come and get them.

S. O'BRIEN: Many people say they are hoping for a miracle. And, Dennis, certainly you have lived one. And I know you're providing a real ray of hope, just your existence for the family members who are waiting to hear any news from their loved ones. Joseph Sbaffoni, the director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety in Pennsylvania, and Quecreek survivor, Dennis Hall. Thanks, gentlemen, for talking with us -- Miles.

HALL: Thank you.

The latest word from West Virginia is the air, as Soledad has been mentioning, is very toxic in the area where they had hoped to find signs for survivors of that mining accident. No signs of any survivors, no signs of the miners at all, but some indications that the carbon monoxide levels are way beyond what is tolerable for human life.

Jim Spears is the secretary of West Virginia's Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. He is obviously integrally involved in this rescue operation.

Mr. Spears, good to have you with us.

When you heard about the air-sample test, that had to be a tough one to take?

JIM SPEARS, W. VA. PUBLIC SAFETY OFFICIAL: It was. But as everyone has said, we're not giving up hope. It doesn't matter if those levels show high at this point. We are still going to continue this as a search-and-rescue operation. We still are holding hope. If they are alive their. We're going to try and find them.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, obviously, searchers in your situation, you've got to hang on to hope. And you have a very experienced crew down there. If any crew could find a safe place, this would be the crew.

Explain for us, though, how it is possible to find a pocket of air that isn't impregnated with carbon monoxide after an explosion like this?

SPEARS: Well, I think as the previous callers, or interviewees just mentioned, the miners have been trained in ways to do this. They look for where pockets of air might be and then they look to barricade themselves in. You can't tell where a pocket of air might be formed or where it might form itself, but you can be assured that if there is one there they would of been looking for it.

M. O'BRIEN: But carbon monoxide in general, wouldn't that just spread, permeate all throughout those mine shafts or is it possible that air can remain free of the carbon monoxide?

SPEARS: No, it is possible. The way the air shaft ventilation system works, it's an intake and an outtake system. And what they're doing is they're bringing in fresh air and trying to pump out the bad air, and that's a constant in the air filtration system.

So in this particular case, even though there are high levels, as long as that fresh air was being pumped in, you never know where you might find it.

M. O'BRIEN: Would they know where to go -- where those intake vents, if you will, are located, where they could find some fresh air?

SPEARS: Well, all of the miners are aware of the filtration system, and they've also been trained on emergency action measures. So we can only hope that they would of followed these measures and looked for those pockets.

M. O'BRIEN: Now, you have your rescue team at about 9,200 feet down that decline. And is it correct to call this a slope mine, by the way?

SPEARS: Yes. It's a drift mine.

M. O'BRIEN: A drift mine, which means it's more horizontal going in, right?

SPEARS: Exactly. M. O'BRIEN: All right.

So they're about 9,200 feet in, and they've got a robot with essentially an extension cord on it that goes another 3,300 feet or so. That still limits their ability to search this mine. It's much bigger than that, isn't it?

SPEARS: Well, it is, but only gets us to a point where we believe that we can have good observation of most of the mine. You got to remember that robot has got telescopic lens capability on it, too.

We've also been able to sense a core mine shaft, you might say, in the end part of that mine. So that's giving us a view, a snapshot view of what's there at the very end of the mine. But that robot will be able to tell us what's in between where we took that snapshot view and that 9,200 foot mark.

The good thing about this we've got search teams following up behind that robot. So they're monitoring that robot and they're also trying to take whatever corrective actions they can as the robot moves forward.

M. O'BRIEN: And is the visibility good in the mine? You say you have telephoto lenses. Is it a straight shot, those mine shafts, and good visibility?

SPEARS: Well, at this point, we don't know what the visibility is going to be because we don't know what the situation is at that particular point. As they move forward, they'll be able to see more and more of what the situation is.

You've got to remember, there were some people that were able to make it close to the point where we believe the explosion might have occurred, and those people were not members of the official search team but they got way up into the mine very early yesterday morning.

M. O'BRIEN: One final question for you: If you outfitted the team with breathing apparatus, couldn't they go in themselves?

SPEARS: That's what they would do with the breathing apparatus; they would go in. However, the one thing that we don't want to do is compound the problem by possibly putting the search and rescue teams into danger also. So as they go forward they have to make sure that the mine behind them is secure.

And so as they move forward, they have on to secure the mine and also repair the ventilation system if the ventilation system needs to be repaired. They have to keep the fresh air moving forward with them as they move forward. So it's a lengthier process than one might imagine.

M. O'BRIEN: And that's why the robot is helpful.

All right. Jim Spears, thanks very much. A lot of good information that helps us understand it. He's secretary of West Virginia's Department of Military Affairs for Public Safety there on the scene.

Coming up, we'll continue to monitor the situation there, of course. We got a briefing coming up at 10:30 Eastern Time.

Also ahead, the latest controversy in New Orleans. Can the city demolish damaged homes without asking the owners first? That's next on "American Morning".


M. O'BRIEN: There are thousands of damaged homes in the city of New Orleans. You know about that. About 2,500 of them, the most seriously damaged, so-called red-tagged homes, in many respects standing in the way of any progress for the city as those homes stay there.

The city would like to begin the process of demolishing them and removing the debris, and in some cases without consent or knowledge of the owners of those properties. And therein lies the rub. Some New Orleans residents are suing trying to stop all of this.

At the center of the issue right now is about 120 homes, really the most serious situations, homes which in many cases have been just taken off their foundations and are causing a problem in right of ways and so forth.

Greg Meffert is the city's chief technology officer, the man who's overseeing this whole process of identifying homes for demolition and renovation and red tags and yellow tags and green tags. He joins us now from the city.

Greg, good to see you again.

The basic gist of the argument from the owners is this is a matter of personal property, they should at least have some sort of notification, some sort of decision, some sort of ability to be in the midst of this process.

What do you say to that?

GREG MEFFERT, NEW ORLEANS CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER: Well, I mean, obviously, it's an emotional issue. And you had, as you know, 110,000 homes flooded. And we are only targeting, as far as the ones that are targeted for the demolition, are really 120, which is -- if you think about 120 out of 110,000, is not huge.

And those...

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, but, Greg, if it's your home, really the only number that counts to a homeowner is the number 1, yours, right?

MEFFERT: Right. And in this case -- first of all, those 120, as you mentioned, those have already completely come off -- not just come off the slab and been demolished -- that's one thing. That's what the red-tag thing means.

The issue that we're struggling with is you have yet to balance public safety, too. And you had -- for instance, you had five people so far die in this region just from tree falling on them (ph).

So if your house has come off the slab and gone into a right of way or into a street, which is really all we're talking about, this 120, we have to balance that property owner's notification of -- again, they know it's already demolished -- but to balance that with the fact that this thing's in the street or it's about to hurt somebody.

M. O'BRIEN: I guess the concern is among a lot of people is that there's been a lot of pressure to go and inspect these homes. In some cases, just based on the sheer volume -- you say in excess of 100,000 homes damaged -- to do these inspections, a lot of quick decisions have had to be made, and there is no sort of court of appeal on all of this.

Let's listen to one of the plaintiff's attorneys. This is Bill Quigley.


BILL QUIGLEY, ATTORNEY FOR PLAINTIFF: Do you think my property ought to be demolished? First of all, you ask my permission. Secondly, if we disagree, then somebody who's an impartial arbiter ought to make that decision, and that's fundamental fairness. You know, we're not talking about a bus pass here, we're not talking about a bicycle, we're talking about people's homes.


M. O'BRIEN: What about some sort of third-party arbiter?

MEFFERT: Well, I mean, again, I think the bulk of the homes, the ones that are just kind of in the red-tag area, I think there could be something to that. But again, the lawsuit he references is not about 2,500. We're not setting up to demolish 2,500 homes tomorrow. That's not at all what this is about. Again, that lawsuit cites the 120. And this is something where, again, if that's endangering the public or slid into the street, what am I notifying you of? Is that house in any way salvageable? Is that house in any way something that you can put back together? There's absolutely no way. But the problem now is, now i've got to worry about the rebuild effort. And I think, frankly, a lot of people get a lot out of keeping New Orleans as a victim. When we're looking to stop being a victim and begin the time to rebuild.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, I guess maybe At the root of the concern here, and that's where we get this third-party notion in here, is that the city might in the process of this, make some sort of mistake, and something that someone wanted to try to salvage gets demolished. You can't -- it's difficult because the whole situation to get ahold of everybody, though, isn't it? MEFFERT: That's right. I mean, we're sitting here, we can't even hold an election, because we can't find all of our displaced citizens. And if you can't hold an election, and you can't just move on the 120 that are in danger of somebody else that is here, once again, it's kind of damned either way, right?

let's say you put a process in there that took -- waited 30, 60 days for us to finally get the list, that we're waiting for the elections to go ahead and notify then arbitrator and 30 days. Now what are you doing? Now you're letting New Orleans sit there and wallow for three, four, five months before you do something, and endangering lives in the process. So I'm not sure in this case letting homes that are already -- piles of debris sitting in the street, letting them sit there for four months, I'm not sure that's the responsible thing to do.

M. O'BRIEN: You've got a hearing coming up in Friday. What do you hope to accomplish there?

MEFFERT: I think the major thing we hope to accomplish is, frankly, to separate out the rhetoric from the facts, and you know, the red tag area being blended with the houses in the right-of-way for immediate demolition, I think is the biggest thing we want to clear up. We're not saying that we're going to go knock down 5000 homes. You know, our job as the city is just to make sure that no one else gets hurt, and that's 120 homes. I think so that's the biggest thing I think in the hearing that we're going to try to clear up here is, hey, this isn't a city unilaterally deciding to demolish anything; this is a city recognizing what Katrina already demolished, and now in a danger of bringing further damage, and that's -- 120 out of 110,000 isn't a very big piece at all, and it's a responsible thing to do, to just begin that process.

M. O'BRIEN: Greg Meffert, we've our time. Thank you for your time. And we'll keep you posted on how that hearing goes on Friday.

Back in a moment.




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