Pennsylvania is like a chunk of Swiss cheese. For centuries, coal miners have burrowed tunnels through vast areas of the state – sometimes not knowing where previously abandoned tunnels are located. For miners, catastrophe is sometimes waiting just behind a wall of coal.
That’s what happened to 18 miners at the Quecreek mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. They dug through to an abandoned tunnel that was full of water and at a higher elevation. The water flooded the new mine and trapped nine miners 240 feet below ground, nearly the length of a football field. The other nine escaped just in time.
Any time miners are trapped or missing as a result of a mining accident, the federal government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is called to the scene. Over the past 25 years, MSHA mine safety employees have succeeded in bringing coal mining fatalities down to their lowest levels ever. They work in near anonymity – sometimes under hazardous conditions – until an event like the Quecreek mine flood causes their rescue operations to make news around the world.
For four days in July 2002, MSHA Administrator for Mine Safety Ray McKinney and his rescue and recovery team made news for giving the “Quecreek Nine” their best chance of being rescued. Under McKinney’s direction, over fifty MSHA officials and team members worked onsite around the clock and across organizational boundaries to stave off calamity.
They began their rescue efforts by carefully calculating where the miners were trapped. Because of their safety training, the miners had instinctively run to the mine’s highest elevation. Learning where the miners were was only one small step in their rescue. MSHA personnel also had to make sure they could breathe. High-power diesel pumps were brought to the scene to relieve the water pressure and give the trapped miners more breathing space. The water was originally up to the miners’ necks, but later drained away from their chosen haven thanks to these critical efforts.
Next came one of the most crucial decisions of all. MSHA, along with other personnel, chose the location to drill a hole through which they could communicate with the miners. Once the hole intersected the mine, they decided to force compressed air into the mine. That air, enriched with oxygen and pumped in at a warm temperature, kept the miners safe from hypothermia as they tried to keep high and dry – quite literally – while waiting for rescue.
MSHA was now confronted with the final and most important decisions of the recovery: where to drill the escape passage and when to connect it with the mine shaft. That was critically important because onsite studies revealed that pressurized atmosphere, supplemented by the compressed air, was helping protect the miners from rising water. MSHA selected a drilling location that would not adversely affect the miners’ safety and carefully gauged when to connect the passageway to the mine shaft without causing depressurization.
For 78 hours, the miners waited in the cold, trying not to give up hope. At one point, a miner asked his comrades which they would choose if they had the chance: a beer, a chew or a hot chocolate. Hot chocolate won. As the miners waited, MSHA workers on the surface drilled and pumped, performing the engineering tasks they had spent their careers developing.
Finally, success. Between 1:00 a.m. and 2:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, July 28, 2002, all nine miners safely emerged from the mine via a rescue capsule that was lowered into the mine to collect them one-by-one. McKinney told reporters later, “I have never had one where you get them all… never.”
Despite occasional mechanical setbacks, MSHA’s strategy was successful. A team of mine rescue professionals – from the coal mine safety working group to the technical support personnel who provided engineering expertise and equipment – had worked together to get the job done. They found ways to stave off tragedy while they worked to bring the miners to safety. “It was a series of right decisions at the right time,” said a MSHA official.
A few weeks later, President Bush spoke after meeting the group of miners. “The best of America was represented in the technology and know-how of our mine safety folks,” he said. “Those who, on a moments notice, used their skill to devise a way to save a life.”
This Sammies honoree was originally recognized as a finalist for Federal Employee of the Year. As of 2004, nominations are no longer accepted directly for Federal Employee of the Year. Instead, all finalists each year are considered eligible for their medal category and Federal Employee of the Year.