STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – For specially trained rescuers waiting to save their fellow miners, the hardest time can be before they descend.
It's a job that requires a degree of patience, because the rescuers can't go in until others have made sure it's safe.
"It's not easy sitting around waiting," said Terry Jacobs, mine rescue coordinator for Gouverneur Talc, in Gouverneur, N.Y. "A lot of times you know the guys down there."
Pennsylvania has nine coal mine rescue teams specially trained to make sure that an accident doesn't become a tragedy. The rescuers are culled from the ranks of miners themselves and most are volunteers.
Tim Witmer, a mine rescue first aid instructor for the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety in Uniontown, said rescuers must have extensive experience working in mines and be trained in first aid and CPR. Some complete training as emergency medical technicians and all are required to complete monthly training sessions.
At the Quecreek Mine near Somerset, where nine workers were trapped in a flooded mine shaft Thursday, that meant waiting for hours while the drill was en route — then up to 18 hours more while the hole was being dug.
The huge drill from West Virginia arrived Thursday afternoon at the mine site, where workers hoped to drill a 30-inch hole more than 200 feet to reach a chamber where the trapped miners were believed to be.
"The only thing they're going to do there is stay out until the water goes down," Witmer said. "There's nothing you can do with water except pump it out, because you can't jeopardize more people. That's why they're drilling down from the top out there right now.
"Once they get the water down where they can get people in, the rescue team will be the first people in."
Rob McGee, section chief for emergency response and training for the bureau, said officials probably will send two rescuers down with the escape capsule who could help any miners who were injured. The miners and rescuers would then be brought up one or two at a time in the escape capsule.
That's very different from most coal mine rescues, McGee said.
"The teams that we train, their use is in large part to deal with toxic atmospheres, where they don breathing apparatus and go into toxic conditions, a fire or gas," McGee said.
But coal mine rescue team members might be among those sent down in the escape capsule.
And the first thing they might have to bring is blankets. Witmer and McGee said hypothermia is almost always a concern underground, where the temperature is a constant 50 degrees and the water might be even colder.