Skip to main content
U.S. Edition


Return to Transcripts main page


Miners Trapped Underground

Aired January 3, 2006 - 04:31   ET


KELLY WALLACE, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning, everyone. I'm Kelly Wallace reporting from New York, continuing to follow a very tense situation in West Virginia; 13 coal miners trapped inside a mine, believed to be about two miles inside that mine, in West Virginia.
We're expecting a news conference from officials which run the mine, the company which runs the mine, just moments from now, which we will bring to you live. Our Adaora Udoji is in Tallmansville, West Virginia on the scene tracking all of the developments.

And Adaora, at this news conference we should get the latest on these rescue teams which are believe to be moving ever so closer to those miners.

ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. As of three hours ago, Kelly, those same officials said that they still had no contact with those 13 miners who have been trapped in the mine about two miles in and 260 feet down.

It has been a painstaking rescue operation that began last evening. There was a long delay between there was a big explosion yesterday morning and when the rescue workers were able to go in because there were lots of concerns about dangerous gases. At one point they thought perhaps it was methane gas, so they had to bring in air ventilation fans. To get some of that gas out so they could send these very specialized teams in.

There are two teams we are being told that are moving slowly, about 500 feet at a time, as they are going deeper into that mine, they are testing the air quality. They are trying to figure out exactly where they can begin drilling; drilling a hole towards where they believe those miners are trapped, so that they can let air in. They can test the air, and they can also drop some kind of microphone device.

From what we understand, the explosion yesterday knocked out a telephone system that usually exists. That being knocked out, they are also, those rescue teams, trying to reconnect that as they move more slowly down into the ground.

We've also learned a little bit about those minors. We are told that on average they have 23 years of experience in these mines and that they have been trained for scenarios like this, that they have breathing equipment and supplies. But at this point, still no contact with those minors, which of course, we can only imagine the kind of anxiety and absolute fear their families are experiencing right now -- Kelly.

WALLACE: Impossible to imagine, Adaora. We know the governor, of course, has been meeting with the family and other workers from the mine. The governor, himself, experienced a tragedy back in 1968, losing his own uncle in a mining accident.

Any sense of what the governor is telling the families, or how the families are trying to cope through this very, very long night?

UDOJI: You're exactly right. He knows exactly what those families and those friends are going through at this exact moment. They have gathered up the road here, from the mine, at a Baptist Church. The Red Cross has set up a family center. They are in there praying, doing a lot of praying. Of course, the governor trying to console them; trying to help them to be patient as the rescue workers do their job.

Now, we're talking about state, local and federal experts who are not down at this mine. We're told they have brought in robotic equipment. None of it, we understand, has actually gone into the mine yet, but it is on standby should it be needed.

And meanwhile, these families are just waiting for any word at all. There has been a constant -- we actually just rode by that church not that long ago, and there are hundreds of cars out there, all sorts of people milling about. And we have seen earlier, I should say late last night, we saw some stills from inside that church, clearly a very, very trying time for those families.

WALLACE: And you know, Adaora, as you talk about the experience of these miners, the officials earlier this evening saying this was no rookie crew, as you said. A lot of experience for these miners. What is the sense that we're getting about what kind of safety equipment they might have with them. What kind of precautions they would take in the event of an explosion, like what happened early Monday morning?

UDOJI: We're certainly learning a little bit about the sort of safety procedures that they set up. From what we understand there are bins of supplies that are placed strategically down in the mines. They do have breathing equipment.

At this point, I mean, they just -- rescue workers have absolutely no idea what kind of space these 13 miners are trapped in, how much oxygen or air they do or do not have. What we do know is that yesterday morning, after the explosion, it was the first shift right after the holidays, Kelly, and they were heading down. Five miners did escape after the explosion and tried to turn around and go back and help their fellow miners, but they ran into a wall of debris.

So, of course, the hope is that at this point that those 13 miners have access to those supplies. That they do have oxygen, that all of their breathing equipment is working as it should be -- Kelly.

WALLACE: Adaora, we just want to remind our viewers: We are awaiting a news conference from officials with the International Coal Group. And you can see a shot there, with some microphones at the podium. That is where we are expecting those officials to come to the microphone to give us an update and also to take questions from reporters. They were last at these microphones about three hours ago. And this is the company which runs the mine.

Adaora, I want to get back to the drilling, which you talked about at the top. You know, workers expected to begin drilling a hole in the earth to, again, test the air quality and also try and check on the status of the miners. Give us a sense again, about what caused the delay in this drilling. Because, of course, any viewers who have been watching this unfolding story knew that it was supposed to begin around 9 p.m. Monday evening, but it kept getting pushed back and then was supposed to happen sometime overnight.

UDOJI: Exactly. They have these multiple teams of experts, as I was saying, and essentially, there was some concern about gas, dangerous gas levels. I mean, they have been continually monitoring the air quality. And early on, yesterday afternoon, and into the evening, there were some concerns about those gas levels. At one point they thought that perhaps it was a methane gas. Although, it is not clear now, they're not so sure that that is what it was.

But they had to bring in fans so they could dissipate that. Not only that, but meanwhile you have surveyors who are trying to take a look at the maps of this mine and try to figure out exactly what tunnels or what catacombs these miners have -- may be in at this exact moment. And that is another part of the delay is just figuring out where to drill, because it is terribly time consuming. So, they did not want to start drilling in one area only to discover that really, given the information that they have at this point, they should have been drilling someplace else.

So, it is painstakingly slow. It is very, very slow process, as not only the rescue teams move down into the mine, but also the surveyors and other experts who are monitoring from above, are trying to give them information so they can be more efficient and accurate as they go along, Kelly.

WALLACE: And of course, Adaora, the focus is on the rescue operation, again, as we await word from this news conference with any updates. But as you know, Adaora, following stories like this one, there are always questions about the safety conditions inside a mine like this one. And reports that the mine received 46 citations, or violations, just back in late December, I believe, December 22. What can you tell us about those violations and what officials are saying about them?

UDOJI: What we can say at this point, because obviously so much of this information is just flowing out slowly as this story has been developing. And we're only talking about 24 hours now, Kelly.

But the International Coal Group, that actually owns this mine, they responded to some of those questions about those citations earlier, or I should say late last night. And essentially they said that they acquired this mine in mid-2005. They are aware of those citations but they said that they had been addressed. So, as to whether or not there is validity or not they have taken a look at all of those citations, and all of them have been addressed in some way. I mean, certainly we're going to be doing some digging on that, Kelly.

WALLACE: And Adaora, we all remember the unfolding situation in July of 2002. The scene there was Somerset, Pennsylvania. You had nine miners trapped for some 77 hours. And they were ultimately rescued. It is the kind of situation everyone is hoping will unfold in West Virginia.

But the situation, Adaora, quite different; in Pennsylvania you had a situation of flooding inside the mine. Here now, you have an explosion, the cause of which is unknown, and possibly some dangerous gases inside where those miners are believed to be.

UDOJI: Exactly. And again, they just have no sense of how much damage that explosion inflicted, past the point where the miners -- past the point of the blockage. In other words, they just don't know, on the other side of the debris, exactly how trapped those miners are. Whether it is a big space, whether it is a small space? What kind of gases have or have not accumulated? Which is why they are systematically, again, they are systematically testing the air, the oxygen levels, as they go further down to the mine, closer to where they believe those miners are trapped.

WALLACE: And Adaora, I know, Tallmansville, is a very small community, a very tight-knit community. Probably every one knows someone connected to that mine. What have folks been saying in the community about how they are all coping as they watch this unfold?

UDOJI: Oh, you are so right. I mean, we have heard from several family members of miners who are trapped, over night. And basically, they say it is a very, very close community, as you said. And clearly all of the members of the community are praying for one another.

I think this city right here is a population of 300, I mean, the surrounding areas is very rural. We are in the north central West Virginia, very long history for many of these families of coal miners and their families. This of course, being their worst nightmare. Because they -- one woman whose uncle was trapped, last night was saying that they take each day one day at a time.

At this very difficult and trying time, as her uncle is trapped, they are trying to take, you know, one hour at a time and trying to do the best they can to console one another, to pray with one another. They are congregated. They are all together and they are just trying to make it through this -- Kelly.

WALLACE: That is all they can do. Adaora, I just want to remind our viewers what we are waiting for. We are waiting for a news conference from officials with the International Coal Group, which owns and runs the mine, the Sago mine, in West Virginia. We are expecting this briefing to happen at any moment now, and as soon as it happens CNN will be taking you to that live.

The last briefing, the last update came about three hours ago. And Adaora, that is when we learned two things. We learned, as you were mentioning, at the top of your report, that rescue teams were moving into or inside the mine. That they had gone about 7,800 feet, and the miners themselves believed to be -- again, believed to be -- about 10,000 feet inside that mine.

We also understand that they were telling us that drilling was expected to begin sometime over night. Again, drilling a hole into the earth, to test the air quality and also to try and check on the status of the miners. And that that drilling was expected to take about four to six hours.

Also, Adaora, one piece of good news, and you have to hold onto any good news that you can in a situation like this. Those rescue teams were reporting that the air quality, I believe, at least as far as they were going, about 7,800 feet, was good. Is that right?

UDOJI: Yes, exactly. As I was saying, they were moving in about 500 feet at a time. And each time they are stopping they were testing the air quality to make sure that it was OK. And they were reporting at that point that they were finding, as they were moving in, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 7,800 feet, that the air quality was good.

And we also should note, again, that we're talking about very small teams, Kelly. There are two teams of five people each. And they are trying to make their way through -- down this mine, down the tunnel. Through the debris that was littered around as a result of that explosion. So it is very slow. They are trying to be very careful. And again, not drilling yet, because they were just trying to make sure that they had a really good idea of where those 13 miners might be at this point -- Kelly.

WALLACE: Adaora, standby if you can. We have someone on the phone who can help bring us some more information. James Spears, who is the secretary of Military Affairs for Public Safety in West Virginia. He is joining us now on the phone.

Mr. Spears, thank you so much for joining us. Can you give us any sense, any update on the situation right now in West Virginia?

JAMES SPEARS, SEC. OF MILITARY AFFAIRS, PUBLIC SAFETY: Yes, we have some search crews that are now at about the 9,200 foot mark. And it is at this point that they are stopping because we are getting ready to punch through on the drill that was started earlier this evening. I should say, earlier this morning.

And when that punches through we need to make sure that the mine is actually clear. So, we're pulling the search teams out at this particular time, going to make sure that it is all clear. Then we're going to be punching through probably in about another 15 or 20 minutes.

Now, keep in mind that this hole that is being drilled is a six- inch hole. And it's primary purpose is to allow us to take the atmospheric readings and also to possibly sink some communications or camera equipment down into it, so that we can see what the quality of the air is at the end of the shaft. That is where we are right now.

We also have brought a robot up from another part of the state. And that robot is being charged and put place so that it can be staged to go up into the latter stages of the mine. Once the all clear signal is given and we have punched the mine, then we're going to look at getting that robot out there as quickly as possible.

WALLACE: And Mr. Spears, you mentioned that these rescue teams got to about the 9,200-foot mark. The miners believed to be somewhere possibly, about 10,000 feet inside the mine. What are the rescue teams reporting in terms of the air quality at that position? And I guess that they probably have had no contact, as well, with the minors?

SPEARS: Right the air quality is something that they obviously monitoring and the air quality is degrading somewhat. And so that is another reason why we want to make sure that we get that robot up there and let them -- let the robot take some atmospheric readings the further up the mine shaft area.

WALLACE: And give us a sense, you said that about 15 to 20 minutes from now, the beginnings of the drilling, of that six-inch hole. Give us a sense, for our viewers, about how long it should take before that drilling is complete. And before you can be able to detect the air quality and possibly even get a listening device in there to check on the status of the miners.

SPEARS: Right. The drilling is almost complete, we are only about 20, 30 feet above the actual surface of the mine. What they're trying to do at this point is make sure that now we've gotten an all clear and all the search teams are out of there before it actually punches through into the mine itself. So within the next 15, 20 minutes we're hoping to have that all clear, so that we can go ahead and punch through.

WALLACE: And then how long would it take, Sir, to get this robot to go ahead and get that robot inside the mine, to the area where the miners are believed to be?

SPEARS: Right, well, once the all clear is given, with the punch through, then we're looking at trying to get the robot up that other 9,000 feet, where the search team stopped. So naturally, you can look at another 15, 20 minutes just to get it back up there and into place. They are using some sort of cars to get up there. So, it is not just taking it up there by hand at this point.


SPEARS: So, they should be able to get it up there fairly quickly.

WALLACE: Well, you are giving us so much important information. Give us a sense then, how soon we could get actual readings from the air quality and also whether there is any contact or any sounds coming from the miners themselves?

SPEARS: Well, we're hoping to have that in the next hour or so. I can't give you anything on that at this particular point. One, it is all going to be determined by how smoothly that punch through goes, into the mine.

WALLACE: And Mr. Spears, this is of course such a tense situation for you all, your colleagues, loved ones, in that area. Do you feel hopeful at this point, based on the information that you have before yourself, right now?

SPEARS: You know, we can't give up hope. We have to continue to hope that things are going to end up being OK. If we give up hope then we've given up everything. And so we are going to continue to operate as if there is still somebody up there that the people are up there and that we can absolutely rescue them. So we are continuing the rescue operation at this time.

WALLACE: And Mr. Spears, it looks like this news conference -- well, it looks like it will begin moments from now, I want to ask you how are the families? The families with loved ones inside this mine, how are they holding up and what -- Oh, excuse me, Mr. Spears, thank you so much for joining us. James Spears, the West Virginia Secretary of Military Affairs for Public Safety.

I want to take you now to this live news conference. Let's listen in.

GENE KITTS, SR. V.P., INT'L. COAL GROUP MINING SVCS.: My name is Gene Kitts, I am senior vice president for mining services for International Coal Group. With me is Roger Nickelson (ph), senior vice president and general counsel.

The drilling has begun on the monitoring drill hole. It is going quite well. We expect the drilling to be completed around 6 a.m. It's actually going quite a bit quicker than what we had estimated.

The procedure that will be followed as the drill approaches the mine, is it will stop at 20 feet above the mine roof. The mine rescue teams will be notified. They will be withdrawn from the mine, just as a safety precaution. Then the drill will proceed to penetrate into mine. At that point we will be testing the content of the air that will be coming up from the mine to determine what the air mine rescue teams are going to be encountering.

And we will also have a camera available, before too long, to be able to take a look at what that area looks like. The -- we have also another new development that hasn't been reported to you. A robot designed especially for mine rescue, is being prepared to be taken underground. This robot was in Beckly (ph), it was moved up this evening. It is being loaded onto a mine locomotive now.

So, as soon as the -- as soon as the drill hole penetrates the mine, and it is determined that it is safe for the mine rescue teams to re-enter the mine, the robot will be transported to approximately 9,200 feet inside the mine, from there it will be deployed. This robot has a range of approximately 3500 feet. It is a track mounted device that is equipped with a camera, and with sensors to measure the atmospheric conditions, check for methane and carbon monoxide.

With the range of 3,500 feet, from a starting point, 9,200 feet deep, we expect the robot to be able to explore to the end of the track in the 2-Left (ph) section. While this is going on, there will be no mine rescue teams beyond this 9,200-foot mark. Instead, their efforts will be directed toward making all the necessary ventilation control repairs from the mine portal into 9,200 feet.

What this is expected to do for us to considerably speed up the effort or actually the process of getting to where the miners are thought to be. We will be able to establish video of that area. We can establish what the mine conditions are. So, we think that this will be quite an advantage to this rescue process.

Again, the mine rescue team made it to a total distance of 9,200 feet from the mine portal. At that point, they are stopping, preparing to withdraw upon our word that the drilling is about to penetrate the mine.

QUESTION: They have already made it to 9,200?

KITTS: Yes, they have made it to 9,200 feet.

QUESTION: Why did they stop there, Roger -- I'm sorry, Gene.

KITTS: Uh, they stopped to do some evaluation work. To check out a couple of situations that have been encountered with ventilation controls and so forth. So --

QUESTION: By that you mean (OFF MIKE).

KITTS: Yes. Primarily.

QUESTION: So, there was evidence of the explosion reaching 9,200 feet.

KITTS: Well, there is some work that will have to be done. It is too early to say exactly what would -- you know, what would have caused the work that will have to be done. The fact that the drilling has gone so much quicker than anticipated has lead us to make the decision that with the 3,500-foot range of the robot, there is no real need to go much farther at this point, just to secure the area that they have reached and then prepare to exit the mine, as the drill then is allowed to penetrate into the mine itself.

So, it is 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.

QUESTION: Gene, if I could follow up on that. Have the rescue teams reported on the roof system and the condition it is in? Has there been --

KITTS: There has been no reports of falls, actually, from what we understand, is the teams that have rotated out have said the mine is in good shape.

QUESTION: Up to 9,200 feet?

KITTS: Right.

QUESTION: (OFF MIKE). What about the air quality at that level? KITTS: The air quality at 9,200 is acceptable to the extent that they are being able to work without using breathing apparatus. So the air quality remains good, where the mine rescue teams have reached.

QUESTION: Have they indicated signs of explosion? The rescue teams?

KITTS: Uh, not to my knowledge, to the depth that they've reached.

QUESTION: Any evidence of communications from the miners?

KITTS: No. There has not been any communication reported.

I neglected, at the opening, to introduce Ben Hatfield. Ben is the president and CEO of International Coal Group. He was out of the country and has rushed back to be part of this effort.


To clarify a point, with respect to your question on whether we've seen signs of an explosion. I was able to get here in time to get the last update in the command center, where we literally have the federal authorities and the state authorities and the company all going over the progress to this point. And we are clearly seeing signs of combustion. There are elevated levels of carbon monoxide, that indicate that a combustion occurred. But to this point the atmosphere is still acceptable for humans.

QUESTION: I'd like to just ask you about that, Mr. Hatfield.


QUESTION: You are saying you saw evidence of combustion?


QUESTION: And elevated --

HATFIELD: Elevated carbon monoxide levels, yes. And some low scale ventilation damage.

QUESTION: Are there any indications that a fire is still burning?

HATFIELD: No. No indication of that. But just indication that there has been combustion.

QUESTION: So, would you call it, perhaps a flash fire?

HATFIELD: I would say it appears to have been an explosion of some sort. We can't measure the magnitude, obviously, until we get deeper into the mine.

Further questions on that? QUESTION: A question about the robot?


QUESTION: It goes on the track, right?

HATFIELD: It is a track-mounted piece of equipment that is mounted with equipment that lets -- it lets the measure of the atmosphere contents, gases levels and such, and also I believe is camera equipped. So they also will be able to see where the robot goes.

QUESTION: Will the robot, do you think it will be able to make it to that part of the mine without instruction?

HATFIELD: At this point, we believe that is the case. Because again, there is not indication at all of any significant roof failure. We're only talking about combustion products that are in the air. So, our belief at this point is that the robot will be able to advance to approximately the area where the men are believed to be, or at least in the area where they're believed to be.

QUESTION: If there is no obstruction why is it that the miners haven't been able to get out?

HATFIELD: We don't know. Again in this situation we don't know how much they knew. So if they barricaded themselves in, because of the possibility that there are dangerous gases out by, they wouldn't have necessarily been assuming that there was an obstacle of a roof fall or anything of that nature. They would be protecting themselves from a gaseous problem.

QUESTION: Mr. Hatfield.


QUESTION: Would that be part of their training procedure? That once they barricaded themselves in, to stay in place until rescuers reach them?

HATFIELD: Yes, that is pretty much normal protocol if there is an explosion.

QUESTION: They wouldn't try to make their own way out, after they barricaded themselves in?

HATFIELD: It is going to be very much a decision driven by the more knowledgeable miners in the group. If they believe they can make it safely outside, with their self-contained breathing apparatus, they will try to do so. But if they believe there is a more substantial obstacle the next typical safety protocol would be to construct a ventilation barrier and maintain a safe environment until rescuers can reach them.

QUESTION: Would it be safe to assume that had they made it 9,000 to 10,000 feet in that their self rescuers would not get them back out, even under normal conditions?

HATFIELD: I don't believe that is safe to say. Certainly, an underground miner could walk that far in an hour if there were no obstacles.

QUESTION: That's my question. (OFF MIKE)

HATFIELD: Yes, the one hour limit on the self-rescue ...


CNN TV E-mail Services CNN Mobile CNNAvantGo Ad Info About Us Preferences
© 2007 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines