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PA holds out hope


"Everybody wants our guys out of there yesterday."

—David Hess

Amid the hilly landscape of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, nine men are trapped 257 feet below ground in the Quecreek mine. They've been there for 72 hours.

The men, ages 25 to 55, were trapped in a collapse Wednesday evening when they inadvertently dug into an old mine shaft.

Despite set backs in the rescue effort -- a drill bit broke early Friday morning and a rainstorm muddied efforts Friday afternoon -- workers remained optimistic throughout Saturday.

"Everybody wants our guys out of there yesterday," said David Hess, secretary of the Department of Emergency Protection.

While the workers are getting closer to reaching the miners with each hour, the work is hard.

"We're dealing with mother nature here," said David Lauriski, of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration. "This is a very, very dynamic environment that's always changing and we're dealing with that change all of the time."

Early Saturday evening, rescue shaft one (one of two drills tearing the earth) was just twenty feet away from the miners. Pumps are also sucking water from the mine shaft and workers are pumping compressed air to warm the trapped men.

"We have reached a critical phase and how we apply ourselves now is quintessential to our success," said Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker.

Once the workers reach the edge of where the miners are trapped, they must drill "cautiously," Schweiker said. "About midnight we'll begin the step of breaking through."

Until then, it's "a dangerous waiting game," he said.

To give hope to family members, who have gathered at a nearby firehall, Schweiker filled a styrofoam bowl with limestone recently dug from 155 feet below the surface and showed it to the anxious family members.

"It's proof positive we're making progress," he said.

Below the limestone is sandstone, said Joe Sbaffoni, division chief with the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

"It's not as tough, but it will still be slow going," Sbaffoni said Saturday morning.

Another point of progress is the large amount of water that's been removed from the mine.

Saturday morning, crews had removed 26 of the 30 feet necessary to reach the miners at the rate of 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of water per minute.

Once the water level is dropped, workers will begin the slow process of what Schweitzer called "the real rescue:" sending a rescue capsule into the mine.

Once the water level is down, crews will be able to reach the miners safely.

While there was no way to ascertain the condition of the trapped miners, Hess said they probably understand what was going on.

"We're still periodically tapping on the six-inch line just to make sure they know we're there," he said. At the beginning of the rescue operation, rescue workers had heard taps on the line from the trapped miners.

At the drilling site, the firehouse and the disaster information site, The Salvation Army served food and provided support.

"We're there when people need to talk to us, if they need some help," said Lt. Colonel Joseph DeMichael. "We worked at Shanksville (where flight number 93 crashed Sept. 11), Ground Zero and now we're here again."

DeMichael said the miners' families are very close-knit.

"They're hoping and playing that everything is fine," he said.

The group met Friday night at the All Saints Church chapel in Acosta for a candlelight prayer service, the Tribune-Review reported in its Saturday edition.

"Their optimism has been tested," Schweitzer said. "They're hopeful, but sober-minded, too. They know the perils of drilling."

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