Pa. Mine Rescuers Lament Situation

When nine miners became trapped far below his western Pennsylvania farm 3 1/2 years ago, Bill Arnold at least felt there was something he could do.

He helped start the digging. He offered up his home to the workers who eventually pulled the miners to safety. Above all, he prayed throughout the 77-hour rescue effort.

Now, with 13 miners trapped far below the ground 90 miles away in Tallmansville, W.Va., Arnold and others involved in that memorable rescue lament that praying is about all they can do.

"With this rescue in West Virginia, I feel even more helpless because I'm here, and not doing much other than praying," said Arnold, 41.

One of the trapped Pennsylvania miners said that, while the two situations are quite different, the emotions are very much the same.

"It's not the same situation we were in, but they're still trapped underground," said Mark Popernack, 44. "There's not much we can do right now except pray."

In Tallmansville, an explosion trapped the miners 260 feet below the surface of the mine. At the Quecreek Mine near Somerset, miners relying on outdated maps were trapped after breaching an abandoned adjacent mine, flooding their mine with millions of gallons of cold water.

Carbon monoxide is one of the biggest concerns in Tallmansville, with tests Tuesday showing levels more than three times what is safe. Officials at Quecreek were worried about hypothermia because of all the 50- to 60-degree water that rushed into the mine.

Tuesday's rescue efforts in West Virginia were on the minds of many in communities near the Quecreek site. At Our Coal Miners Cafe in Jennerstown, several miles from Somerset, owner John Rhoads posted a sign Tuesday that read "Pray for WV miners and families."

"We here in Jennerstown went through the exact same thing and we hope and pray they come out with the same result," he said.

Others involved in the Quecreek rescue recalled the emotions they felt in July 2002, from the fear at the beginning, to the stress in the middle and the joy at the end.

Joseph Sbaffoni, director of the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety in Pennsylvania, said waiting was one of the hardest parts.

The Quecreek accident happened around 9 p.m. on July 24, 2002, trapping the miners 240 feet below the ground. Six hours later, workers started drilling a 6-inch air hole to where they thought the miners would be. They broke into the mine shaft, heard tapping and started pumping down air.

"That's when we knew somebody was alive," Sbaffoni said.

The air allowed the miners to breath, gave them warmth and helped push the water back from the high ground where the miners were huddled.

After waiting for a large drill rig, crews started drilling a rescue shaft around 6 p.m. July 25. Workers battled through a broken drill bit and other difficulties before getting to within 20 feet of where the miners were believed to be at 3 p.m. July 27.

By 11:30 p.m. that day, rescue workers confirmed all the miners were alive. By the early hours of July 28, all nine had been rescued safely.

With few encouraging signs by Tuesday afternoon, however, West Virginia rescue workers have to hope for a miracle, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, who served as a public liaison during the Quecreek rescue.

"My heart is just doing flips over what could be discovered," Schweiker said. "The big difference there is the amount of time."

At Our Coal Miners Cafe, many couldn't help but think back several years to when a similar drama was unfolding in their backyard. David Barnett, 80, said his heart went out to the families.

"I can't see how they can handle it," said Barnett, a friend of rescued miner John Unger. "The first thing I thought about was him."