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Broken bit delays rescue of miners

Rescuers desperately trying to reach nine coal miners trapped 240 feet underground struggled to cut an escape hole Friday after a drill bit broke in a heartbreaking setback that cost them nine precious hours.

It took until late afternoon to get the 1,500-pound bit out of the way, clearing the way for drilling to resume with a new bit rushed in by helicopter.

"It puts you in a prayerful mood," Gov. Mark Schweiker said after the bit broke 100 feet down _ not even halfway to the men. "It's going painfully slow."

The miners have been in a tiny air bubble inside a flooded, 4-foot-high passage since Wednesday night. Rescue officials said the men were believed to be huddled in the dark, their lamps extinguished long ago, and were being soaked by cold, rushing water.

Officials said they feared hypothermia would set in before rescuers could break through _ something that wasn't expected until at least this morning.

Rescuers said they had not heard a clear signal from the miners since midday Thursday. They twice tried to listen for the men Friday, but noise from rescue equipment made it too difficult to hear if the men were making tapping sounds or other noises.

Rescuers began drilling a tunnel at the Quecreek Mine on Thursday night. It went smoothly until the drill bit broke early Friday when it hit hard rock or coal about 100 feet down, still nearly 150 feet above the men. As crews struggled to remove the bit, work began on a second rescue shaft.

Drilling in both shafts was agonizingly slow as workers scrambled to fit the equipment with bits to get through the bedrock below. By Friday evening, the first shaft was still only 105 feet deep and the second one just 48 feet deep.

Officials were hesitant to guess when the shafts might reach the miners, but David Hess, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection, said the best-case scenario would have crews reaching the men around dawn today. Crews then planned to drop a basket and pull the men up.

"Everyone is disappointed. This is a real roller-coaster," said David Hess, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection.

Rescue crews still hoped that some or all of the miners, ages 30 to 55, were alive. The air being pumped into the chamber was about 100 degrees, in hopes of warming the men.

Dozens of family members kept a somber vigil at a fire hall in nearby Sipesville, as they have since the accident.

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