Nine miners were trapped 240 feet down in the earth on Thursday after a wall burst and inundated them with tons of water from an abandoned mine, sending them to crouch desperately through the night in an air pocket in a 4-foot-high coal seam.
"It's a race against time," a state mining official said. The last clear underground tapping signals from the miners were picked up at midday, some 14 hours after the night crew of the Quecreek Mine operating a high-powered digging machine had to run for their lives when the waters rushed in from the adjacent abandoned mine 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
Rescue crews rushed a special 30-inch power drill into place Thursday night in an attempt to dig an escape shaft to any survivors among the men, who hunched in pitch darkness in 55-degree water, their heads in the air pocket, officials said.
The drilling of the rescue shaft, a delicate operation that must avoid ruining the air bubble, could take 18 hours and might not reach the men until midday today, rescuers said.
In a visit Thursday night, however, Gov. Mark Schweiker said the shaft was going well and might reach the miners earlier this morning.
In the meantime, hypothermia became a mounting worry as the miners neared a full 24 hours in their cold and watery haven. Medical estimates were that, after the first four or five hours, the men, if alive, would have "serious trouble" from the underground cold unless they generated body heat by moving about in their cramped space in the coal seam, which measures only about 48 to 52 inches high.
"It's very difficult to say what their chances are," said David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. Hess said that the inrush of an estimated 50-million gallons of water from the abandoned mine had been slowed, but was still rising in neighboring seams higher than the air pocket.
Six emergency pumps gushed water up from the flooded mine into the creek as rescue workers sought to keep the men alive with an emergency 6-inch pipe through which compressed air was pumped down into the air pocket. Among other strategies, the idea of sending divers through the mile-long path from the mine entrance was dismissed by officials as impossible.
The air feed was the miners' only hope of a lifeline through the night, officials said. The compressed air not only fed oxygen below but also supplied pressure to hold back waters that, elsewhere in the mine, were estimated to be 20 feet higher than the air pocket.
"We don't want to lose that air bubble," said Joseph A. Sbaffoni, chief of the state bureau of deep-mine safety.
As they fled the onrush of water, the night crew managed to radio a warning to nine other workers in a different part of the mine. Those men raced back up to safety, with some of them working Thursday night to try to rescue their trapped colleagues.
The plan for a 30-inch rescue shaft required a special large drill to be trucked in from West Virginia, which took all day. The shaft will be wide enough for a rescue basket, but must be precisely drilled, Hess emphasized.
"We have to be very careful the drill doesn't break this bubble we have created," he said.
The shaft will be capped from above to maintain pressure, Hess explained, so that air and water do not burst upward at the breakthrough. The men below will hear the drill coming, he said, and know from experience how best to prepare.
At 3:30 Thursday morning, after rescue teams sank the compressed-air pipe down, they tapped on it in search of a response from anyone still alive.
Immediately, there was a clear reply. Nine taps sounded from below _ the miners' traditional code enumerating survivors. More taps of reassurance were heard regularly until midday when, officials said, the growing sounds of rescuers' pumps and drills made it difficult to hear any further tapping.
Officials were at a loss to explain how the flood could burst in on the miners, since state regulations require a 200-foot-wide safety wall between adjoining mines. But Hess noted that, after more than a century of mining, Pennsylvania is honeycombed with old mines and that the old maps on file are not always accurate.
The families of the miners were escorted to the rescue site during the day so they could see the rescue effort.
"This is a very close-knit community, and one family has a father and an uncle down there," said Betsy Mallinson, the spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection who was with the families.