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Mine Rescue Mission; Southwest Wildfires; Deadly Roof Collapse; Miracle at Quecreek

Aired January 3, 2006 - 06:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

A desperate race against time, drilling now under way in West Virginia, rescuers trying to reach 13 coal miners trapped for almost 24 hours now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope they're alive and well and our prayers and we believe in miracles in West Virginia.


M. O'BRIEN: Family members holding out hope for their loved ones. We are live with the very latest.

S. O'BRIEN: Dozens of wildfires are still burning across the southwest. The weather forecast could bring more bad news. We've got an update on that.

M. O'BRIEN: And in the southeast, severe weather there as well, heavy storms and damaging tornadoes. More on that, plus today's forecast straight ahead.

S. O'BRIEN: Plus another search for survivors to tell you about, this one at a collapsed ice rink in Germany. We're going to take you there live for the very latest on all of these stories on AMERICAN MORNING. We begin right now.

M. O'BRIEN: We begin in West Virginia with the rescue mission for those 13 miners. The story has been breaking all throughout the night. We're expecting a drill to break through into the Sago Mine any minute now. The shaft it will make will be used to check the air and listen for survivors. Thirteen miners not been heard from since an explosion in their coal mine 24 hours ago now.

Adaora Udoji live in West Virginia with more on that.

Adaora, what is the latest?


International Coal Group, some of their executives, just spoke not long ago. And actually that drilling should be taking place, they told us, just about now. They announced that rescue teams had moved much faster into the mineshaft than initially anticipated, getting 9,200 feet in. That's only 800 feet away from where they believe those trapped miners are. They are going to take those rescue teams out. They are going to start drilling. And then, Miles, they are going to be sending in a robotic robot.

Now this robot has cameras and sensors, which means it's going to be able to measure the CO2, carbon monoxide, levels, methane gas levels. They are trying to accumulate as much information as they can. As the officials told us, they said they are moving with an abundance of caution in trying to find those trapped men.


GENE KITTS, SR. VP. ICG MINING SERVICES: It's actually coming together quite well with the addition of the robot to this project. We think that the effort to reach the area where the miners are thought to be will be greatly accelerated.


UDOJI: The big concern he said is gas. They say at this point they don't believe that the mineshaft has suffered that much damage, which, they hope, bodes well for those 13 miners who are trapped still, Miles. And no contact since almost 24 hours ago -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora, obviously a difficult time for the families. What do we hear about how they are holding up?

UDOJI: Absolutely. I think one of the uncles -- one of the nieces of a miner who was in the shaft said it's their worst nightmare. There are hundreds of family members and friends who are just up the road here from the mine. They are gathered at a Baptist church where the Red Cross has set up a family center. We understand there's been a lot of praying and a lot of togetherness and a lot of just wait and see -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora Udoji in West Virginia near that mine, thank you.

The Sago Mine has a history of safety violations. Federal regulators cited 208 alleged violations last year. The company says, though, that's not such a big number given the size of the mine. Nevertheless, it is three times the number of violations as in 2004. Similarly, the state found 144 alleged safety problems last year, nearly twice as many as the year before that. Records show that all but the most recent violations have been corrected.

However, officials say they don't know what caused the explosion, but the mine has been cited for allowing coal dust and other combustible materials to build up inside the mine. Sago's accident record in 2004 was three times as high as similar mines around the country.

And we hope to see you from West Virginia tomorrow morning. We'll bring you live coverage directly from the mine all morning as that rescue effort continues -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Winds are expected to pick up again today across the southwest. That's very bad news for firefighters. Dozens of wildfires are burning in Oklahoma, in Texas and New Mexico. And some of the very worst is in Texas. Fires there destroyed more than 70 homes since Sunday.

Now during that same time, more than 100,000 acres have been charred in Oklahoma.

CNN's Jonathan Freed more on one of those fires near Oklahoma City.


JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): I'm standing in the middle of a one square mile area that started burning on Sunday afternoon. That fire came this way from the south. And we are approximately 10 miles or so from downtown Oklahoma City, which is off in that direction over there.

Now some 20 houses burned as a result of that fire, including four in this immediate area. And although firefighters have been gone from here for a good half a day, when you hold your hand out here over this smoldering area, you can still feel that it's warm.

Now the governor of this state has been by here expressing relief that nobody was hurt in any of the fires here and concern that the dry conditions in this state are expected to continue.


GOV. BRAD HENRY, OKLAHOMA: Well it's a bit frustrating because we see no end in sight. Obviously we follow the forecast very closely and there's no appreciable precipitation forecast for the next two weeks. That means these dry conditions will persist. And when the winds pick up and the humidity drops, it's just a perfect storm for fires.


FREED: Oklahoma is now more than one foot below its normal rainfall of 36 inches for this time of year.

In Oklahoma City, Jonathan Freed.

Back to you.


S. O'BRIEN: To northern California now. The rain may have stopped, but people there are still battling dangerous floods. Many towns remain underwater, in fact. Rivers are expected to stay above flood stage throughout today. The price tag on all the damage is nearly $100 million. Southern California saw several inches of rain as well, windy, too. Gusts clocked as high as 96 miles an hour there. And mudslides still remain a big concern.

Rain, though, didn't stop the Rose Parade. Parade participants wore plastic ponchos and horses were fitted with those skid-resistant shoes. Crowds, though, very thin. Only the most die-hard fans really stayed through all those heavy downpours that they had right there.

M. O'BRIEN: Unseasonably warm weather triggering violent weather in parts of the southeast. Several tornadoes reported across Georgia and Kentucky on Monday. In Kentucky, a lot of cleaning up to do this morning. At least two tornadoes spotted in Lincoln and Hardin counties, damaging homes and leveling a convenience store.

Some summer-style weather and destruction overnight in Georgia as well. Several homes heavily damaged by a tornado in the southern part of Metro Atlanta. Across the state, at least four tornadoes spotted. Only minor injuries reported.

Bonnie Schneider at the Weather Center looking at all of this for us.

Good morning -- Bonnie.



M. O'BRIEN: So, Bonnie, I mean has lightning ever caused an underground explosion in a mine...


M. O'BRIEN: ... as far as you know?

SCHNEIDER: Yes, as far as I know. And also that mine companies tend to pass out more safety information regarding lightning because this is a problem, especially in areas like West Virginia. Not so typical this time of year to see such strong severe weather that we saw yesterday. But you're working in a mine, lightning is definitely something that people need to keep in mind as far as safety goes.

M. O'BRIEN: Bonnie Schneider in the Weather Center, thanks very much -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: To southern Germany now where the search for survivors is still under way at an ice rink. At least 10 people died when the rink's roof collapsed. Take a look at these pictures. Collapsed under the weight of too much snow. It took hours for crews to try to shore up the roof so that rescue workers could try to get inside.

CNN's Chris Burns is there for us this morning in Bad Reichenhall in Germany. It's just a few miles from the Austrian border.

Chris, good morning to you. Give us an update, how many people do they believe are still trapped inside that building?


As many as nine people still trapped there. You might mention that nine -- among the nine people who died, most of them are children. A lot of grieving families in this little town. Some three dozen people were pulled out alive, half of them injured, two of them seriously. But they are holding out hope that there could be as many as nine people still alive under that rubble.

But it's a very delicate process. They have cranes, they have sniffer dogs and hundreds of rescuers there onsite and searching through the night and continuing today. But it is a very delicate process, because that roof that you perhaps can see now that it crashed down, broke in two and crashed down on the ice skating rink, could actually further destabilize as they try to pull it away. So they are doing it with very kid gloves -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, yes. The pictures we're looking at, Chris, are just unbelievable. Complete devastation there. Were there any warning signs? Did any of the survivors talk about any kind of warning that the roof was about to collapse?

BURNS: Well we hear that there was some sound of cracking in the moments and seconds before it came crashing down and that there was a quick call to evacuate, but obviously too late for many people.

But there is a lot of the blame game going on right now. You look at the headlines today, newspapers that are accusing officials of being negligent. And there is a criminal investigation going on right now into perhaps some wrongdoing. The police spokesman I talked to a while ago said that the technical director at that ice skating rink had decided that even though about a foot of snow had fallen in 24 hours, it was still safe to go skating. But that evening he wanted to close it down and -- but it was too late by then, it had crashed before then -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Chris Burns with an update on a terrible story that we are following out of Germany this morning. Thanks for the update.

Ahead this morning, we continue to follow this breaking news out of West Virginia. We are monitoring this rescue mission for those 13 miners who are trapped underground after an explosion in their mine. It's been almost 24 hours since anyone has heard one word from these miners. We're going to update you on the very latest in just a moment.

M. O'BRIEN: We'll also hear from a man who knows what it's like to be trapped underground in a mine. One of the survivors from the 2002 Quecreek Mine accident will talk to us. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Tense and dramatic rescue effort is under way as we speak in West Virginia. A six-and-a-quarter-inch hole being drilled in the ground toward 13 miners who haven't been heard for now about 24 hours after an explosion in a mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. That shaft of air will give rescuers some indication as to the conditions beneath the ground and whether in fact those miners have survived that explosion. No one has heard from those miners, as we say, for 24 hours, no noise, no tapping. And the rescue effort continues. We'll keep you posted on that.

Kelly Wallace is looking at some other headlines for us.

Good morning -- Kelly.


And we are beginning in Iraq. Some information just in to CNN, a U.S. airstrike has killed at least six Iraqis in Bayji, which is north of Baghdad. As we said, this information just coming in to us here at CNN. The victims are said to be members of the same family in Iraq. And the raid, we understand, took place on Monday. We're following this story and we will bring you more information as it comes in.

In the southwest you can say it is a real struggle against wildfires. Winds are expected to pick up today and that could cause even more problems. A fire in Ringgold, Texas has destroyed dozens of homes.

In Oklahoma now, dry conditions and strong winds are a major concern for firefighters there battling blazes. The governor of that state says about 360,000 acres have burned since the wildfires started.

In Georgia it was a stormy day and night, high winds and heavy rain drenching parts of the state. There were even reports of some tornadoes. Officials will be checking out all the damage this morning.

And it is a similar story in Kentucky, storms whipping through that state. A tornado in Hardin County damaged several homes, but luckily no one was hurt.

And North Carolina -- northern California, excuse me, you can say is not out of the woods yet when it comes to bad weather either. Back-to-back storms caused an estimated $100 million in damage in two towns alone. Residents will be back this morning cleaning up from heavy flooding. The big fear today, weakened levees and the threat of mudslides. Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in seven counties. He got a firsthand look at some of the damage in parts of Napa on Monday.

And we expect to learn more today about how a Florida teenager got into Iraq last month. Sixteen-year-old Farris Hassan says he'll hold a news conference today. No time just yet, but we'll be keeping you posted. He's also expected back at school. Hassan, you'll recall, traveled to the region without telling his parents he was leaving. He was there three weeks before returning Sunday night.

So what is your weather going to look like on this Tuesday? Bonnie Schneider at the CNN Center with the latest.

Good morning -- Bonnie.

SCHNEIDER: Good morning, Kelly.


S. O'BRIEN: All right, Bonnie, thanks a lot.

We're going to continue to monitor these rescue efforts as we cover this story that has been coming to us out of West Virginia, 13 miners who are trapped underground. We're waiting to hear any word about their condition. Drilling has begun. We know we are going to get an update, we are told, at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Many reporters on the scene for us there as well. And we're going to try to update you as soon as we get any word.

In the meanwhile, business news, low cost airlines shutting down for good.

Carrie Lee has that.

CARRIE LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Independence Air, not a good week for them at all. They are canceling all flights departing after 7:00 p.m. this Thursday. Independence Air has 2,700 employees. That will be their last day of work this coming Thursday.

Now the low fare carrier has only been flying for 19 months. Their hub is in Washington Dulles, but a lot of competition out of that hub, including JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest, a lot of other low fare names here.

So information for passengers, if you have a round trip ticket, you're going to be contacted to change your return date before the shutdown, once again, 7:00 p.m. on Thursday. They're going to try to talk to the bankruptcy court and try to give people refunds.

And then, of course, Miles and Soledad, it is federal law that other carriers flying the same routes, if they have seats available, they have to give them to passengers for $50. So people who are flying Independence Air certainly need to be aware of this.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, a little bit of good news, I guess, when you said you know get -- you have got to return by Thursday. I mean...

LEE: You have to return by Thursday. If you can't, well then you can try to get on another carrier. But the closing of Independence Air good news for other airlines because it just means more business for them, so.

S. O'BRIEN: Right, right, right, silver lining kind of thing.

M. O'BRIEN: Not that they are exactly tap dancing probably, in this case, because they are all kind of in their own...

S. O'BRIEN: It's a tough...

LEE: They have all had a tough time.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

LEE: You know rising fuel costs a big problem. But 2006 is expected to be a little bit better, business travel starting to pick up. So I think we have seen the worst in this industry certainly.

S. O'BRIEN: Gosh, let's hope so.


LEE: Yes.

S. O'BRIEN: Carrie Lee with an update.

Thank you -- Carrie.

LEE: Yes, sure.

S. O'BRIEN: Ahead, we're going to follow and continue to update you on this breaking news out of West Virginia, this rescue mission that's now under way for those 13 miners who are trapped underground. What they need now is a miracle.

And this story, of course, reminds us of a story where a miracle did happen. A story where made headlines back in the summer of 2002.


DENNIS J. HALL, RESCUED MINDER: Time was running out as that water filled the mine up, we were losing air fast (ph).


S. O'BRIEN: One of the survivors of the 2002 Quecreek Mine accident reflects on his ordeal and what happens now. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. We're back in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: We are awaiting an update from the Sago Mine in West Virginia. The 13 miners who are trapped underground truly need a miracle. It's been 24 hours since anyone last heard from them. And rescuers have been drilling down about 260 feet trying to get any kind of information on the miners, also assess the air quality within that mine. We're going to update you when we get a briefing. We're expecting that around 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time.

But we have seen miracles before. You'll recall miners trapped underground, hope running out. Back in 2002 it happened in Somerset, Pennsylvania.

CNN's Gary Tuchman takes us back to the miracle at Quecreek.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The world was watching as rescuers desperately drilled into 240 feet of rock, trying to save nine men in a flooded Pennsylvania mine. But nobody above the ground knew if the miners were dead or alive. And then came the word.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All nine are alive.

TUCHMAN: After 77 hours, with tens of millions of gallons of water having flooded the Quecreek Mine, the men were pulled up one at a time in a cage-like cylinder. All nine miners had survived. And over a 90-minute period, they were all rescued on live TV.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Lucky seven, Dennis J. Hall. H-A-L-L. He's 49 years old, and he's a local boy from Johnstown.

TUCHMAN: Dennis Hall comes from a family of miners. He had worked underground since he was a teenager. At first he was hopeful there would be a rescue, but 18 hours went by where nothing was heard from above.

HALL: Time was running out. As that water filled the mine up, we were losing our thoughts then (ph).

TUCHMAN: Hall and his fellow miners wrote goodbye letters to their families and put them in a bucket.

HALL: I made peace with the Lord. And I figured if this is the way he wants me to die, you know I have to accept this. I didn't like it, but I did accept it.

TUCHMAN: Another trapped miner, Randy Fogel, felt the same way and thought about family members in the mines before him.

RANDY FOGEL, RESCUED MINER: I've had, on my mom's side, her dad died in the mines. My uncle on her side lost his leg in the mines. On my wife's side, her dad lost his dad before he was born.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His name is Randy Fogel.

TUCHMAN: Heroic measures by many made the rescue possible. The Quecreek Mine is under a farm. The owner of the farm did the first digging.

BILL ARNOLD, FARM OWNER: Because they were under my property, I somehow felt responsible for their wellbeing.

TUCHMAN: A microphone lowered into the ground ultimately made it clear everyone was alive. The cage was dropped inside and the miners realized they were saved.

HALL: Wow, you know. I can't believe this, you know. I just couldn't believe it.

TUCHMAN: Some of the men still work in the coal mining industry, but only Randy Fogel is still working underground. Dennis Hall, husband and father of two, undergoes counseling. And, at his family's request, will never work again as a miner.

HALL: You know how they say you know stop and smell all the roses, you know there's a lot of truth to that.

TUCHMAN: Gary Tuchman, CNN, Atlanta.


S. O'BRIEN: We're going to talk to another one of those miners who was rescued at Quecreek coming up a little bit later this hour.

Interesting note here, the drilling equipment that's being used right now in West Virginia is the same exact drill that was used back in the 2002 rescue at Quecreek -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up, we'll go back out live to West Virginia for what is happening. We'll get the latest. Thirteen men trapped in that coal mine. A rescue mission is under way. That six-and-a- quarter-inch drill bit, hopefully a lucky bit, on its way to a tunnel where they are believed to be. Have not been heard from for 24 hours. Hopefully that hole in the ground will provide some evidence that they are alive. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.



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