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Miners in West Virginia Trapped For 24 Hours

Aired January 3, 2006 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Soledad O'Brien. We are watching closely that rescue mission, it is now underway in West Virginia. 13 coal miners are trapped underground. Rescuers, though, hope to reach them at any moment. We're going to be live with the very latest.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Miles O'Brien. Another rescue mission underway in Germany; they're trying to reach as many as nine people in the rubble of a collapse ice skating rink. We'll take you there live.

S. O'BRIEN: And dozens of stubborn wildfires are still burning in the Southwest. People are being forced from their homes as those fires close in. We'll give you an update on that story. Plus, severe storms battering some Southern states. The latest on the tornadoes, just ahead, on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Good morning, welcome everybody. Lots to cover this morning as we wait for an update on these miners in West Virginia.

M. O'BRIEN: About 30 minutes from now we expect to have another briefing from the company that owns that Sago coal mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia.

We hope to hear good news, frankly, as they attempt to do a two- front effort on a rescue. On the one hand, they're drilling a six- inch hole toward the tunnel where they believe those 13 miners are; been there for 24 hours since that explosion.

The other front down, the tracks and down the steady decline, which the miners took toward that mine, they are going to be sending down a robot which will be able to sample the air quality conditions and the general conditions in the mine to give people a better sense whether it was a survivable situation at all.

Our Adaora Udoji has been there in West Virginia, there, all through the night for us. Rescuers drilling that hole.

Adaora, at this point, do we know how far along they are in the effort to drill that hole?

ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they were hopeful about an hour or so ago that they would finish drilling that hole at about 6:00 a.m. Eastern time. We are expecting to hear more in half an hour. Clearly, we should be hoping there will be some progress made. As you said, overnight, they did make serious progress with that drilling. The idea being that they will be able to test the air quality and also perhaps send a microphone down there. Again, Miles, it's been 24 hours since they've had any contact with those 13 miners that are still trapped down in the mine shaft.

Again, not only are they drilling that hole, but they are planning on sending down a 1300-pound robotic robot that is armed with cameras and also sensors to do air quality but provide the rescue workers with lots of information. The executives say they are moving ahead with this rescue effort with an abundance of caution and the robot is going to be very helpful.


BEN HATFIELD, PRES. INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: The main reason to push forward with the robot and to push forward with the drill hole is essentially what lays ahead of the rescue teams. Once they know what's out front of them, they can move much quicker, they move with great assurity they are not putting further lives at risk.


UDOJI: The big concern is gas. So far, executives said there isn't any evidence that the mine shaft itself has suffered a tremendous amount of damage so they are proceeding very carefully because they certainly don't want to put either the miners in jeopardy or the rescue workers -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora Udoji, in West Virginia, at the mine. Thanks very much.

That Sago mine has a history of safety violations. According to the Associated Press, federal regulators cited 208 alleged violations last year three times as many violations as in 2004. Similarly, the state found 144 alleged safety problems last year, nearly twice as many as the year before.

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, three times as high as similar mines around the country.

In a few moments, we will speak with the governor of West Virginia. He lost an uncle to a mining accident. Again, that next news conference, about 26 minutes from now, 7:30 Eastern Time, we, of course, will bring it to you live. Stay with us throughout the morning -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: In the meanwhile, let's update you on these wildfires. They are still burning across the Southwest this morning. Some of the numbers truly is staggering. Nearly 500,000 acres charred in Oklahoma and Texas and New Mexico. Hundreds of homes destroyed. CNN's Jonathan Freed is in Oklahoma City this morning. JOHNATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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. 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 the 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 is 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 a perfect storm for fires.


FREED: Oklahoma is 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: CNN is your severe weather headquarters so let's bring you up-to-speed in what is happening in northern California. The rain stopped, people, though still battling dangerous floods. Many towns remain under water.

Take a look at these pictures. The rivers expected to stay above flood stage throughout the day. The estimated price tag on the damage is $100 million. Southern California saw several inches of rain as well, gusty, too. Wind gusts as high as 96 miles an hour. Of course, mudslides always a big concern there.

Southeast, unseasonably warm weather triggered several tornados in Georgia and Kentucky. Take a look at this, twisters damaged homes and leveled a convenience store as well. Destruction overnight in Georgia. Several homes damaged by a tornado in south metro Atlanta. Across the state at least four twisters spotted. Only minor injuries reported there, fortunately.


M. O'BRIEN: Another rescue mission is underway, as we speak, this one is in southern Germany. The roof of an ice skating rink collapsed beneath the weight of snow. Nine people dead, but more people are still trapped in the rubble. Chris Burns is there, in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, a few miles from the Austria border. He joins us now on the phone.

Chris, is there much hope there will be any survivors?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN INT'L CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, authorities are still holding out hope. The last girl they found alive was six- year-old girl last night. That has been hours and hours. They've been looking throughout the night, hundreds of rescuers have been working feverishly, and very delicately, to prevent the rubble from crashing down on them. They're using heavy cranes and sniffer dogs. They still have hope.

And strangely enough, even though there is the fear of hypothermia, the people could actually freeze to death, there is the other side is if some of these people are trapped in an air pocket, the snow could actually serve as an insulator, like an igloo effect, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: That is an interesting scenario. It's difficult to tell, just looking at these pictures, but it probably is fairly likely the way the wreckage is that there would be kind of these pockets.

In the meantime, I know there's a criminal investigation that may be underway here. What is that all about?

BURNS: Well, you have ought to see some of the headlines here. There is quite a bit of outrage. They're talking about ignorance, about ineptitude of some of the officials, especially those who are running that ice skating hall.

A police spokesman told me that the technical director there had decided that even though about a foot of snow had fallen overnight, before the collapse he still thought it was OK until sundown. That after sundown, they would have to clear the hall and clear the roof. Apparently that was too late.

They're looking at that. They're looking at possible structural problems. It's a 30-year-old building. But there is a criminal negligence investigation and they want to get to the bottom of it. There is a lot of pressure here. A lot of families outraged.

M. O'BRIEN: I imagine so. Chris Burns in Germany, thank you very much.

S. O'BRIEN: Coming up this morning we will bring you an update on what is happening in West Virginia. We're expecting a 7:30 a.m. briefing from the company that owns the mine. We will bring that live to you when that happens. Obviously the rescue mission now underway, we will also talk to the governor of West Virginia.

M. O'BRIEN: That briefing in just in 20 minutes. Stay with us for that.

And later more on the devastating wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma. We'll talk to a family who lost everything on New Year's Day. They still say they're lucky. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) S. O'BRIEN: Back to this rescue mission. Here is the Sago mine, a picture of it. You can see, this is what they're dealing with today. Two miles in, essentially, is where they believe the 13 miners are trapped, down a distance of about 260 feet.

Now, that distance, 260 feet, is essentially where they have positioned that six-inch drill. That drill is going to bore down and get an assessment of the air quality. Obviously, air quality is absolutely critical to any kind of survivability for those 13 miners.

We are expecting a press conference, a news conference in 15 minutes to update everybody on the situation. Meanwhile, the rescuers are still hard at work. Let's get to West Virginia's Governor Joe Manchin. He joins us this morning.

It's nice to talk you. I know you've been up through the on night. Governor, so thank you very much for being with us.

GOV. JOE MANCHIN, WEST VIRGINIA: Good morning, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: I've got to ask you, I know everyone is holding out hope. Do you think this is survivable at this point for these 13 miners?

MANCHIN: Well, I've always said in West Virginia, we believe in miracles and we still believe in miracles. There is still a chance and there is hope. And we have that. Everyone is working around the clock here.

They drilled down through and we put the camera down. They had to pull it back up and clean it off. It is back down now, viewing around. The robot will go ahead of the rescue team now. So we're hoping that we'll have a good result.

We hope for the best here that they could of found some good air and kind of blocked themselves in, if you will. We're hoping for that and just waiting to see what we have.

S. O'BRIEN: Have they given you an update what was seen when the camera finally made its way in, and when they brought it back up to clean it off, what that camera saw?

MANCHIN: No. Before I came on with you they were just in the process right now. The camera can only see about 16, 20 feet. The robot will go in, it is able to do a little better from that standpoint.

We're concerned about the levels of carbon monoxide. So we're very careful that we don't put our rescuers in harm's way, and that's why we are moving so cautiously. These are brave people and good people, hard-working people. And the families are clinging and pulling together and drawing off of each other's -- off each other's inner strength and it what is really gets us through.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh. I bet. I know this is something unfortunately you've had personal experience with, a loss due to a mining accident. Have you had a chance to talk to the family members? I know they've gone to a church to be alone, together.

MANCHIN: Well, the families gathered together. I was in Atlanta yesterday morning attending the Sugar Bowl. West Virginia University played Georgia and we were there with 25,000 other fans.

I was called in the morning. And I got on the plane and came right back. Because I knew what they were going through, I wanted to be here -- back home with our people. Basically, in this situation, you cling on every word and rumors will run rampant. Every minute seems like an hour and every hour seems like a day.

I wanted to make sure that we, the state of West Virginia, were updated with accurate information on a periodic basis. So the people wouldn't be hearing false rumors or anything that would not be accurate. So we've been very careful.

I can tell you, we have pulled together. We have all the clergy there. They are very prayerful and very much praying. And it's just a family -- it is a family gathering right now, if you will, extended family gathering. And that is who we are in West Virginia. We're really family, we pull together.

These are the bravest people that really have mined the coal that has made the energy for this country and the families that support them are very, very brave people. I'm very proud and we're very hopeful.

S. O'BRIEN: I bet you are. And just a brutal wait for these family members.

Let me ask you a question, about the breathing devices that these miners may have been wearing when they went into the mine in the first place, went into work essentially. Would there be enough air, oxygen in those breathing devices to enable them to get to a safe place?

I mean, it's been 24 hours. I know they don't have enough air for that, but enough to enable them to get to safety after the accident?

MANCHIN: Well, let me give you an example. I talked to one of the miners, it was about 10 minutes behind the crew we're looking for right now. And he heard the explosion, felt the heat, and then the dust hit him. And he was able to get his breathing apparatus on and be able to go to a clean -- or what we call a safe passage -- in order to get back out of the mine.

So it did exactly what it was designed to do. And that all came about after the 1968 disaster in my hometown of Farmington. After that, the apparatuses and the self-containment that the miners have, and they're well-trained, this is a well-trained crew. If anyone could survive this crew could survive.

S. O'BRIEN: Gosh, well we're all certainly crossing our fingers, holding out hope and adding our prayers to yours, too, for all these family members waiting for any word. Joe Manchin is the governor of West Virginia.

Governor, thanks for your time this morning.

MANCHIN: Soledad, thank you. Thank you for all of the prayers of the people around the country.

S. O'BRIEN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

A reminder, just about 10 minutes away or so, we will get an official update on this rescue mission that is going on in West Virginia. We will bring that to you live as soon as it happens. We're watching to hear any word about the 13 miners trapped about 260 feet under ground. It's been 24 hours since anyone has heard any word.

But as you just heard from the governor he believes in miracles, and so do we. We are following the story, the very latest ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Just about eight minutes away from an update we're expecting to hear from the this mining company on exactly what is going on as these rescuers are trying to reach 13 miners who are trapped about 260 feet below ground. We're going to bring that to you live as soon as it happens.

In the meanwhile, some business news, news on the airline front. Let's get to Andy Serwer "Minding Your Business".

Good morning.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: Good morning, Soledad.

We knew this would happen eventually. In fact, it now we have just learned that Independence Airline will be shutting down. This is a bankrupt airline and we've been waiting for one of these bankrupt carriers to shutter. And this is finally happening here.

This company declared bankruptcy two months ago, just began flying in June of '04 based out of Washington Dulles. It will stop flying on Thursday, canceling all departures after 7:00 p.m.

And 2700 employees will probably lose their jobs. They couldn't find an investor. And in the greater scheme of things, it's terrible for these employees and terrible for people who are flying, but there's too much capacity in this business. That means there's too many planes, too many companies. So, this was inevitable.

As for people who have tickets on this airline, here's what you need to do. You need to probably contact the airline to see if you can fly before Thursday, if you have a round trip ticket. Otherwise, you can get some refunds, but this would be bending bankruptcy proceedings. So that's going to be a little bit ugly.

Also other airlines are required to allow you to fly the same route with a $50 surcharge, so that's what's going to be happening there. At its peak they had 100 aircraft now flying 600 flights a day, now they are only flying about 200 flights a day. There are still other airlines bankrupt in this business so more to come, perhaps.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh. Well, maybe 2006 will be a better year than 2005 was, certainly for airline industry news, it was bad.

SERWER: Exactly.

S. O'BRIEN: Andy, thanks for the update.

SERWER: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Back now to West Virginia, that tense effort to try get those 13 miners, who haven't been heard from for more than 24 hours now, out from about 260 feet below the ground, continues.

And meanwhile, family members gather at a Baptist Church not too far away. The governor of West Virginia, a little while ago, said we're all family here in West Virginia. The extended family of those miners now supporting each other as best they can during very difficult times.

Among them, Nick Helms who joins us via video phone from the church, in Upshur County, West Virginia. Nick's father, one of the men trapped. Perry Helms who is the so-called fire boss. We'll get into that in a moment.

I wanted to ask you, Nick, how are people holding up?

NICK HELMS, FATHER TRAPPED IN MINE: They're doing pretty well; as good as can be expected.

M. O'BRIEN: What are people saying to each other? What are people doing to try to get through it all?

HELMS: Just -- you know, they're comforting each other. Just trying to stay positive as much as possible.

M. O'BRIEN: How much information are you getting from the mine company?

HELMS: As much as they can give us -- they're -- I mean, they're doing a very, very good job of informing us every step of the way of what they're doing, future plans.

M. O'BRIEN: Can you tell us what they've told you up to this point? We understand that six-inch hole in the ground has made it down to the tunnel not far from where they might be. Have they had any sort of indication as to what conditions are like there or if they've heard from any of the miners?

HELMS: Right now, I'm not certain if they've heard or made contact with any of them -- of the miners. As far as I know, they're proceeding on bringing the robot in to maneuver, check air readings, videotape, document every step of the way. M. O'BRIEN: Now, your father, Perry, is an experienced miner, a so-called fire boss. Why don't you explain what his role would be, and whether you think he's well equipped to survive something like this?

HELMS: Well, my dad is a fire boss. What a fire boss does is he -- he's a first line of defense. He goes in, checks air readings, monitors belts. He pretty much is the safety guy. He goes in and tries to make it as safe as possible for everyone. And if there's something wrong, he's, you know, he'll let everybody know and they will all be fine.

He's been in the mines for 34 years, working on his 35th. He'll be 51 in February. You know, he's had close calls before, he's a big, strong man and I'm sure he's doing everything he can to help everyone down there.

M. O'BRIEN: Nick, how are you and your family holding up?

HELMS: There's been some tense moments. Kind of -- I don't know. We're -- you know, we're holding up the best we can. My sister is being really strong. My mother is here, my stepfather, the rest of our family. Everybody is doing as best they can with what we have to go on, so hopefully, everything will be fine.

M. O'BRIEN: We wish you and your family and all of the other families well, nick. Nick Helms, the son of Perry Helms, the fire boss, a miner with 34 years of experience.

HELMS: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Among the 13 who have not been heard from there at the Sago Mine.

Thank you, Nick.

Now as we have been telling you we are expecting a news conference on that mine rescue mission. It could happen within the next few minutes. We'll bring it live to you the moment it happens so stay with us.

Thirteen miners trapped underground more than 24 hours now. How long can they hold on? A lot of questions unknown here. For example, what is the air quality down there? Is there methane, carbon monoxide? We'll try to have answers for you ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


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