SOMERSET, Pa. – Nine miners pulled from a flooded 4-foot-high mine shaft after three days underground suffered some symptoms of hypothermia, but given their ordeal, their lack of significant health problems was remarkable, doctors said Sunday.
"If you were to meet any of these guys on the street right now, you would not know that they were trapped in a cavern full of water for three days," said Dr. Russell Dumire, a trauma surgeon at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, where six of the men were taken.
"It's really rewarding for us to see tears of joy instead of tears of sadness at a trauma center," Dumire said.
Starving and dehydrated, the men were taken to two hospitals. Two were flown by helicopter, the rest taken by ambulance. Each had mild symptoms of hypothermia, a cooling of the body temperature that can lead to irregular heartbeat and even death.
Given that the men had been stuck in a dark, sooty chamber that had more than 3 feet of water in it at times, experts expected them to be in much worse shape when they were brought out of the shaft one at a time beginning about 1 a.m. Sunday.
"This is a miracle," said John Weir, spokesman for Black Wolf Coal Co., which operates Quecreek Mine, where the men had been trapped since 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Three men were released from Conemaugh Sunday. John Unger, Randy Fogle and Thomas Foy were still in the hospital Sunday, Gov. Mark Schweiker said. Two of them had chest pains; a third was being treated for decompression sickness because of pain in his shoulder.
Three men taken to Somerset Hospital, which is closer to the mine site, were released Sunday morning.
Medical personnel said the major reason the miners did not suffer more severe hypothermia may have been the pressurized air — heated to more than 100 degrees — that had been pumped into the underground chamber since Thursday morning.
"Getting the pipe down with the warm air was probably lifesaving for these individuals," Dumire said. The miners also huddled together to keep warm.
As crews drilled a shaft to save the men trapped 240 feet underground, all types of emergency equipment and personnel had been dispatched to the scene, including ambulances and 18 helicopters, in case some of them had problems. And there were nine decompression chambers, which were not needed at the time.
Concerns that the men might experience the "bends" — bubbles in the bloodstream caused by rapid changes in pressure — did not immediately materialize.
Dumire said in addition to hypothermia, the miners also faced problems with light sensitivity and trench foot, a painful condition that can result from immersion in water or exposure to a cold, wet environment for too long.
Once the miners, soaking wet and covered in soot, reached the surface, their biggest concern was hunger, Dumire said.
"They pretty much devoured anything that we brought into the room," he said. "They were not picky. They just took whatever was brought to them."