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Fire Fears Prompted Miner to Cut Off Arm
CANBERRA (Reuters) - An Australian coal miner trapped deep underground by a fallen tractor severed his own arm with a box-cutting knife because he feared the tractor would explode into flames, newspapers said Monday.
Miner Colin Jones, 43, was in a stable condition in hospital Monday, two days after his tractor rolled over while he was working two miles underground at a mine about 93 miles north of Sydney.
Fearing an explosion from leaking fuel, a panicked Jones had begged a workmate to cut off his badly crushed right arm even though emergency rescuers had been alerted. The workmate refused so Jones used his own Stanley knife, or box-cutting knife.
"By the time the bloke had walked around to the other side of the front-end loader, Col had completely severed his arm," another unidentified colleague told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Police had released few details of the incident Sunday but the Herald quoted a psychologist as saying Jones' actions may have been influenced by the similar plight of U.S. mountaineer Aron Ralston.
Ralston cut off his arm with a pocketknife in May after he was pinned for five days by an 800-pound boulder.
Colleagues packed Jones's severed limb in a plastic bag and applied a tourniquet to the still-conscious miner and took him to the surface, where he was rushed by helicopter to hospital.
Surgeons were unable to reattach his badly crushed arm in an emergency operation. "He's in a stable condition," a spokeswoman for John Hunter Hospital said Monday.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003 at 10:59 JST
BEIJING — Coal mine accidents in China killed 2,767 people in the first six months of this year, down 1.2% from the previous year, China's trade newspaper China Meitanbao said Tuesday.
China reported about 6,300 deaths from coal mine accidents last year. The newspaper said the number of fatal coal mine accidents in China in the first half of the year rose 10.3% over the previous year to 1,630. (Kyodo News)
China mine blast kills 22
Sunday, July 6, 2003 Posted: 1:35 AM EDT (0535 GMT)
BEIJING, China (AP) -- A coal mine explosion in northeastern China has killed 22 people and injured six, a mine official said Sunday.
Another 15 miners who were in the pit were rescued uninjured after Friday morning's blast at the Yakeshi mine near the city of the same name in the Inner Mongolia region, said the official with the mine's Safety Production Office.
Rescue work was completed Friday evening and safety officials from the regional and national governments were investigating the cause, said the official, who identified himself only as Mr. Zhang.
Such explosions are usually caused by the accidental ignition of gas that seeps from the coal and builds up due to poor ventilation.
Explosions, floods, cave-ins and other accidents killed more than 5,000 Chinese miners last year, making the country's mines the world's deadliest.
Many mines operate illegally with scant regard to safety. However, Zhang said the Yakeshi mine, located about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) northeast of Beijing, was government-owned and had operated legally since 1985.
Information Network Designed to Supervise Coal Mine Production
|North China's Shanxi Province plans to build an information network to make a long-distance surveillance of coal mine safety. |
According to a construction plan mapped out by the Shanxi Provincial Government, the network, expected to be fully completedby the end of 2004, will cover all coal mines in the province and stand as a major information conduit between security authorities and mine management.
The functions of the network will mainly involve hidden danger reporting, accident alarms, security surveillance, information distribution and on-line safety training.
Abundant in coal resources, Shanxi Province has many coal mines, and gas blasts have become a major source of accidents.
Although no budge investment was disclosed, analysts believed that the move would help rectify the local coal mine industry and improve safety.
|2nd MSHA staffer files complaint|
|By Martha Bryson Hodel/Associated Press Writer|
CHARLESTON - A second top-ranking staff member at the federal mine safety agency has filed a complaint alleging he was suspended in retaliation for self-described "whistle-blowing" activities.
A lawyer representing Jack Spadaro, formerly head of the federal Mine Health and Safety Academy near Beckley, filed a complaint Wednesday with the federal Office of Special Counsel that outlined internal complaints that he said led to his suspension with pay on June 6.
Earlier in the year, a lawyer for Tim Thompson, filed a similar complaint after he was reassigned as a "general engineer" without specific duties and told to work from his home. Before his reassignment Thompson was director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Morgantown-based regional office for about 10 years.
Although his complaint did not specifically allege retaliation for "whistle-blowing," Thompson's Feb. 6 complaint contends his "reassignment stems from reprisal, including attempting to enforce safety regulations against a politically connected mining operator and speaking out against wasted taxpayer funds."
Spadaro was placed on administrative leave after he complained about improper purchasing and procurement practices, including the purchase of computers without competitive bids, sexual harassment and creation of a hostile workplace environment, according to the complaint filed by Charleston lawyer Jason Huber.
The complaint filed on behalf of Spadaro was confirmed late Thursday, after MSHA headquarters closed for the long holiday weekend. Telephone messages seeking comment on the complaint were not immediately returned.
In the complaint, Huber alleges Spadaro's job was threatened on June 2 by David Lauriski, assistant U.S. secretary of mine safety and health.
According to a witness' statement cited by Spadaro's lawyer, Lauriski told his deputy secretary, John Correll, "I might be leaving soon, but I'm going to take out that son of a bitch Spadaro before I go."
On June 4, while Spadaro was traveling to MSHA headquarters in Arlington, three MSHA executives entered Spadaro's office at the academy "where they changed the locks on the door to his office, read all of his correspondence on and in his desk and adjoining areas and disassembled and examined picture frames containing personal photographs," the complaint said.
In a Feb. 6 letter to Correll, lawyers for Thompson allege that his reassignment resulted from a personnel conflict with Ray McKinney, Lauriski's appointment as administrator in charge of Coal Mine Safety and Health.
"It does not appear that Mr. Thompson's reassignment was planned for the good of the service, but was motivated, at least in part, as part of a vindictive campaign against Mr. Thompson by Ray McKinney, who was promoted to Administrator for Coal Mine Health and Safety this past year," said the letter from Washington, D.C., lawyer Colleen M. Leyrer.
"Mr. Thompson has had an almost 30-year distinguished career with MSHA, and is generally well respected within MSHA and by the industry he regulates. He has never had any problem with any supervisor until Mr. McKinney became his supervisor.
"To the extent there has been any 'unnecessary conflict ... with management,' Mr. McKinney has created this conflict, not Mr. Thompson," Leyrer wrote.
An investigation of activities at MSHA is under way by the federal government itself. In January, the office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Labor conducted unannounced, simultaneous raids on MSHA offices in Arlington, Va.; Lakewood, Colo.; and Beckley.
In a letter to Lauriski, Assistant I.G. Elliot P. Lewis explained why he believed the surprise raids were necessary.
"Due to the sensitivity of the issues involved in this matter, along with allegations of prior document shredding by MSHA employees, we have decided not to provide advance notification," Lewis wrote.
"Further, the information we have received does not preclude the possibility of potential criminal violations."
HIV Testing of Miners Under Fire
July 7, 2003
Khopotso Bodibe and Nawaal Deane
A debate around the compulsory HIV testing of miners is set to shake up the mining industry in the coming months. Concerns are that miners whose HIV status is known could be the target of discrimination.
The need for a policy around the compulsory HIV testing of mine workers arose from a case that has been postponed in the Pretoria High Court.
Central to the case is a decision by the chief inspector of mines and the Ministry of Minerals and Energy about the classification of the death of Jose Mulungu Cossa, a miner who worked for the Rustenburg Platinum Mine.
Cossa died in hospital in October 2000, about a month after sustaining knee injuries in an accident in the mine's Turffontein shaft.
The chief inspector ruled that Cossa's death was a fatality arising from his injuries in the mineshaft and did not result from his HIV-positive status.
Health-e news service reported that the mining company challenged the ruling, which imposed a R60 000 levy, paid over three years, on the mining company.
The case was postponed until next January after the parties decided to attempt to develop a policy that would assist in situations where mine workers infected with the HI virus meet with accidents and subsequently die in the process of exercising their duty.
"We believe that companies have to be given permission to know the status of their various employees when they appoint them," said Mike Mtakati, spokesperson for Anglo-Platinum.
He said compulsory testing would benefit the employees because they can be placed in less hazardous jobs.
"We could, through the various interventions, prolong their lives. We don't have to shy away from the workers who are infected with this disease, but we have a responsibility as a company to help prolong their lives. But we can only do that when, and if, we know their status with regard to HIV/Aids," he said.
But compulsory testing creates a problem if it is forced on miners, said Senzeni Zokwana, president of the National Union of Mineworkers. "Testing is good, but we will not support a situation where testing is done against the will of our members."
Zokwana said that if the mining companies implemented compulsory testing, those who are HIV-positive would be the first considered for retrenchments.
"The issue of placement is not a new one The problem is the mining companies may find that up to 40% of their workforces are HIV-positive; then who will go underground?"
A mining-industry committee will debate whether the death of HIV-positive miners should be included in mines' statistics.
These statistics are used to determine a mine's safety risk, which in turn results in a specially calculated levy being imposed on the mine. Mining companies stand to benefit from HIV-positive miners being excluded from the statistics, as the greater the risk, the higher the levy imposed on them.
Mtakati is adamant that the issue of Cossa and the court ruling has nothing to do with the monetary factor. "It's got absolutely nothing to do with the issue of the levy, but has everything to do with a principle."
World's deadliest coal mines power China's progress
By David J. Lynch, USA TODAY
MENGJIAGOU, China — The first time gas fumes leaking from underground coal deposits detonated and killed two dozen miners, managers at the local state-owned mine swung into action.
"We had meetings on coal mining safety every day," says miner Kang Xingsheng. "But there were no actual measures taken to improve safety — only meetings."
So, 10 years later, it happened again. On March 30, gas fumes ignited in a fireball that killed an additional 25 of Kang's co-workers in this remote mining village about 525 miles northeast of Beijing. Eleven others were injured, some so seriously they will never return to the mines. Ten men were lucky enough to escape.
As China engages in a headlong pursuit of prosperity, its workers toil amid grave risks in many corners of the economy. Nowhere are the dangers greater than in its coal mines, the world's deadliest.
Critics say the government and its business allies regard safety as a distraction from the more pressing demands of growth, as did England and the United States during their industrial revolutions. Yet the country's new leadership is awakening. "The government must pay greater attention to the safety problems in our production in all fields," said Hu Jintao, shortly before becoming China's new president. "This is an important task that we must take seriously."
Far from the soaring glass towers of Shanghai and Beijing, China's often-primitive coal mines epitomize the human cost of the nation's rising living standards. Last year, 6,995 coal miners were killed in explosions, roof collapses and floods, according to government statistics. (By comparison, 27 American coal miners lost their lives in 2002.) Independent experts say China's death toll is actually closer to 10,000, because some mine owners routinely minimize casualty figures and pay victims' families to keep quiet.
The world's largest coal producer, China depends upon the fuel for 75% of its power needs. Under communism, miners were a celebrated part of the proletarian elite. In 1922, a young Mao Tse-tung even organized his first significant labor protest in the coal fields of Anyuan. Now, they suffer as the country's economic advance outstrips occupational safeguards.
"Every day, if you're going into the mines, there's the danger of losing your life. There could be a gas explosion or a rock dropping from the ceiling. There's always the chance accidents are going to happen," Kang says, "But you have to live. You have to feed your family. You know it's dangerous. But being scared doesn't help anything."
Although China's communist government bans independent trade unions that might protect miners or workers, seeing them as a threat to its monopoly on power, analysts credit Beijing with trying to improve conditions:
• Officials passed a new occupational safety law last year.
• In January, Wen Jiabao, soon to become China's new premier, celebrated Chinese New Year by joining coal miners 2,100 feet below ground to eat traditional dumplings.
• In May, the central government issued a new regulation specifically requiring tough inspections of the nation's troubled coal mines and immediate action to fix unsafe conditions.
Safety directives not enforced
But Beijing has a hard time enforcing safety directives on cash-strapped provincial governments and private enterprises. The coal mining industry is splintered among tens of thousands of small pits, many operating only for short periods and staffed by a handful of ill-trained miners.
At the end of 1999, there were 36,700 active mines, according to Lu Jianzhang of the China Coal Research Institute, which is partially funded by the government. Each year, they produce about 1.1 billion tons of coal. "In the U.S., you produce a similar amount of coal with 1,750 mines," he said.
Even when the central government orders unsafe mines closed, local officials — desperate for the mines' tax revenue — often ignore the edicts. "Local government officials also are on the boards of directors of these enterprises. Collusion between those two makes enforcement more difficult," says Chen Meei-Shia of Cheng Kung University Medical School in Taiwan.
Through an aide, Wang Shuhe, the government official overseeing mine safety efforts, declined an interview request.
Reforms that have opened China to market forces have had an enormous impact upon the coal mining industry. State-owned mines, facing pressure to become more competitive, are preoccupied with massive layoffs and reorganizations. Their private rivals often are operated by subcontractors who lack a long-term interest in the mine or those who work it.
Miners, frequently impoverished farmers drawn from distant villages, often receive little training before heading below ground, says Han Dong Fang of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
"There's no reason for the subcontractor, who'll be there temporarily, to spend money on safety," he says.
This village of shabby single-story cement and brick homes, situated amid softly undulating hills, has been dependent upon the local state-owned mine for two decades. Village women soap their families' clothes against flat rocks in a feeble creek while idle adults and children crowd to stare at a rare foreign visitor.
Before the accident, Kang, 44, began each day with an ample breakfast of rice, vegetables, pork and sometimes corn bread. The single meal would last him through an exhausting eight-hour day in a subterranean twilight lit only by miners' headlamps.
On March 30, he had finished distributing the day's assignments to his team of miners and begun the slow journey back to the surface. The electricity that powers giant fans to disperse the volatile gases had gone out several minutes earlier. Riding in one of the rail carts that carried miners and coal out of the earth, Kang was suddenly jarred by a deafening blast he describes as "KUTONG."
"I immediately knew it was a gas explosion. My first thought was getting out as fast as possible," he says.
It took Kang 15 minutes to drag his wiry frame out of the mine. Over the next 20 hours, he says, he made several return trips, pulling two injured miners to safety.
Officials insist mines getting safer
Government officials insist China's mines and factories are getting safer. Through the end of April, 4,261 workers died in industrial and mining accidents. At that pace, this year's total would be 14% below last year's, but officials say they cannot specify how many coal miners have died so far this year.
How do local officials respond to questions about the March 30 accident? Just one week after the accident, two mine managers were arrested for violating work rules that require mines to be evacuated while the gas dispersal fans are idle. One was later sentenced to three years in prison; the fate of the second man could not be learned.
Though quick to punish, the officials also have discouraged independent inquiry. As a USA TODAY reporter interviewed Kang in the miner's sparsely furnished home, a local Communist Party official, accompanied by a representative of China's powerful internal security organization, interrupted and insisted that the journalist immediately leave. The party cadre carried a sleek Panasonic GD88 cell phone, with digital camera, which retails for almost $600, a small fortune in a village where no one has seen a paycheck in three months.
The next day, when the mine reopened for the first time since the accident, local officials demoted Kang to ordinary worker from his position as mining team "captain," which he had held for 20 years. The punishment could cost the father of four up to 40% of his $150 monthly salary. "You can have anybody come to investigate this matter," a local party official told him. "But remember, we're the boss here."
Miners deserve more
A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 8, 2003
The federal government is kidding itself if it thinks a $435,000 fine against Jim Walter Resources for a coal mine explosion that took 13 lives will get the industry's attention. If anything, the fine, which amounts to $33,000 for each lost life, is a vivid reminder of how poorly the nation protects the most vulnerable members of an essential workforce. The government's fine and Walter's response add to an already sad chapter.
The miners were killed on Sept. 23, 2001 after two explosions in an Alabama mine. The first blast was caused by a damaged battery, which ignited methane gas. The second and much more powerful blast was caused by a buildup of volatile gases, killing the miners as they tried to rescue colleagues injured by the first explosion.
The U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Walter for eight safety violations the government said contributed to the disaster. The fines levied last month were the maximum possible for what the government called "flagrant" safety violations. "It is our sincere hope," said Dave Lauriski, Labor's assistant secretary for mine safety, "that the mining industry will take the lessons learned from this tragedy to prevent such occurrences in the future."
It will take more than a meager financial penalty to induce mining companies to make serious investments in safety, training and equipment. Walter's parent company, Tampa-based Walter Industries, is a $2-billion conglomerate. The fine it faces for 13 deaths is negligible in a monetary sense - and it plans to appeal, anyway. The company, which faces 11 lawsuits from relatives of the victims, is no doubt trying to save face and limit settlements and claims.
It's reprehensible to see these deaths reduced to lawyering over monetary terms. We would rather hear Walter address the complaint that it failed to limit the buildup of combustible coal dust and failed to properly evacuate the mine after the first explosion. The government also said Walter lacked adequate safety checks and procedures.
But the miners' union and the government safety agency bear some responsibility, too. The union failed to follow up on legitimate safety concerns, and federal regulators were too lax in prosecuting complaints about unsafe working conditions.
The danger of mining is supposed to come with the tradeoff that industry, unions and the government are united by a collective interest in safety. Certainly, as a broad theme, that's true. But the only ones who really paid in Alabama were the 13 men who rushed into the ground; they didn't wait for investigations, fault or fines to take responsibility. The way they died is in sharp juxtaposition to the refusal by the industry and the government to accept their share of the fault. If regulators thought the fine would grab attention, they were right - it shows that, even today, some workers are largely considered expendable.
7/8/03 6:38:00 PM
To: National Desk
Contact: Kathy Snyder of the U.S. Department of Labor, 202-693-9422
ARLINGTON, Va., July 8 /U.S. Newswire/ -- The Mine Safety and Health Administration may average samples taken on a single working shift to determine compliance with standards designed to protect coal miners from black lung disease, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled today. The court reversed an earlier ruling by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that required the government to average samples taken during multiple shifts.
"This ruling is a victory for coal miners because it will help to ensure that their health is protected during every single working shift," said Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao concerning the decision in the case, titled Secretary of Labor v. Excel Mining, LLC. "Our goal is to have every miner go home healthy at the end of every working day."
MSHA has based regular compliance determinations under the respirable coal mine dust standard on multiple samples taken over a single shift since 1975. Excel Mining had challenged that practice in contesting three citations for respirable dust violations that MSHA issued to the company in 1999.
"With this ruling we can identify overexposures using multiple samples in a single shift and require corrective action," said Dave D. Lauriski, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. "Meanwhile, we await the results of current research on personal continuous dust monitors, which we hope will provide the next quantum jump in monitoring miners' dust exposures."
While waiting for results of the research on continuous dust monitors, the Federal mine agency recently suspended work on regulatory proposals that would allow compliance determinations based on a single full-shift sample as well as set new requirements for verifying coal mine operators' dust control plans. The Excel decision does not affect these proposals.
Federal coal mine health standards provide that each coal mine operator must maintain the average concentration of respirable dust at or below 2.0 milligram per cubic meter of air on each shift. MSHA is dedicated to preventing fatalities, injuries and illnesses in America's mines through enforcement, education and training, and technical assistance. For more information, visit http://www.msha.gov.
Coal company officials fail to appear at arraignment
By the Associated Press
Published July 8, 2003
ABINGDON, Va. -- Officials of a defunct coal mining company charged with breaking federal safety rules did not appear at an arraignment in federal court.
Officials from Mackie J Coal Co. of Whitewood were scheduled to appear Monday on six charges of breaking federal safety standards and two counts of making false statements in connection with the electrocution of a miner last year.
Mine foreman Gerald Deskins of Raven faces the same charges and is set to be arraigned Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer said he believes the no-show resulted from a scheduling problem. However, a judge could issue contempt charges enforced by a daily fine if company representatives fail again to appear, he noted.
Attempts to reach company officials were unsuccessful.
Ronnie Endicott, 42, of Pilgrims Knob was electrocuted Jan. 24, 2002. According to Mine Safety and Health Administration documents, Endicott was helping Deskins move a section of high-voltage cable.
The company faces a possible fine of up to $4 million. If Deskins is convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 16 years in prison and fined up to $2 million.
Miner stamp gaining favor
HONORING KINGS OF COAL
There seems to be renewed vigor in the push to memorialize coal miners with a U.S. postage stamp.
For nearly 17 years, John Vengien, 88, of Plymouth, has crusaded for such a stamp.
A former coal miner who saw two of his best friends killed in a mine, Vengien says his efforts to convince the U.S. Postmaster General and the U.S. Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee to create a coal miners stamp have borne little fruit.
Vengien has joined forces with the COALition for a Coal Miners Commemorative Postage Stamp, a small but determined group with the same objective.
"It's picking up momentum now," Vengien said. "I never gave up on it, and I will never give up."
COALition has collected 80,000 signatures on a petition, including 13,000 via an online petition, said member Rhea Malone of Maryland, formerly of Wilkes-Barre.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives in May unanimously adopted a resolution, introduced by state Rep. Keith R. McCall, D-Carbon, calling for the federal stamp advisory committee to issue a commemorative stamp honoring coal miners.
Historically, the COALition has been told that coal mining is too local an issue to be memorialized with a U.S. postage stamp. However, with nearly nationwide support, the postal service has changed its response recently to say that the coal miners stamp is "under consideration."
COALition has gained support from lawmakers in 47 of 50 states. Only Maine, Mississippi and Texas have not responded.
Tom Walent of Wilkes-Barre was in Harrisburg last month to keep the pressure on in the state Legislature. Through his efforts, the Pennsylvania Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal and community service organization, offered its active support.
Walent joined in Harrisburg with other members of the local Knights chapters to present the more than 900 signatures they had collected for the petition drive to McCall and House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia.
"I just see how hard they've been working," Walent said of the COALition. "My big concern is that the guys that we're interested in memorializing now are getting older and this could just slide by them. I think they deserve it."
One reason for the increased attention is the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Quecreek Mine accident, when a transfixed nation watched on TV as rescuers successfully retrieved all nine coal miners trapped in a flooded mine in Somerset County.
Members of the COALition are trying to tie their stamp effort to the anniversary as a means of generating more support.
"It's something that has to make the people in Washington, D.C., take notice," said Malone. "Anything that gets the stamp is fine with me."
Like many COALition members, Malone has taken on the fight in memory of members of her family who worked and perished in the mines. Her father was a miner, and her paternal grandfather was killed in a mine accident in Northumberland County. Her maternal grandfather died in a Wilkes-Barre mine.
There is no minimum number of petition signatures required to get a stamp recommended by the advisory committee. According to the Postal Service, the committee receives up to 50,000 stamp suggestions annually.
Until its members get the word that a coal miner's portrait is on a U.S. postage stamp, the COALition will continue chipping away at the federal bureaucracy that has ignored their pleas for more than a decade.
"It's so small when you stop and think about it," Malone said. "It is such a small honor, but it's an important one. It's recognition."
Brett Marcy, the Times Leader's Harrisburg correspondent, may be reached at (717) 238-4728.
TIMES LEADER STAFF PHOTO/MADALYN RUGGIERO
John Vengien sits on his porch in Plymouth, remembering his coal-mining days. Vengien has been doing more than just talking. For the past 17 years, he's been at the center of a small but determined movement to have the U.S. Postal Service honor coal miners with a postage stamp.
N E W S R E L E A S E COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
|COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA|
Department of Environmental Protection
Commonwealth News Bureau
Room 308, Capitol
Harrisburg, PA 17120
|FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE|
Phone: (717) 787-1323
DEP NAMES NEW DIRECTOR OF BUREAU OF DEEP MINE SAFETY|
Joseph A. Sbaffoni has nearly 20 years of experience with DEP and 14 years of experience in the coal mining industry|
|HARRISBURG: Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty named Joseph A. Sbaffoni director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety (BDMS), effective July 14. Sbaffoni is currently program manager for the Bituminous Mine Safety Division of BDMS and has nearly 20 years of experience with the bureau and 14 years of experience in the mining industry prior to his employment with DEP. |
“Joe Sbaffoni brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the position of director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, which he has gathered from his years within the department and his experience in the mining industry,” McGinty said. “We are confident that with his expertise, he will be able to guide the bureau into the future to make the mining industry as safe as possible for those Pennsylvanians who make their living as miners.”
Sbaffoni was instrumental in directing the department’s initial response after the Quecreek Mine accident in July 2002, and during the course of the rescue he provided technical assistance and advice to the DEP secretary and the governor and briefed the media on the status of the 77-hour-long rescue.
He has served as program manager for the Bituminous Mine Safety Division for more than 10 years, during which time he was responsible for planning, developing and implementing deep mine safety and miner certification programs, and he has served as co-director of numerous state and regional mine rescue contests. During his tenure as program manager for the bituminous division, the bituminous region experienced a fatal-free year in 1998.
Sbaffoni also has served as program manager for the Field Operations Division for BDMS, and as a bituminous underground mine inspector.
Prior to his service with DEP, Sbaffoni worked in management positions for Crescent Hills Co. in Washington, Washington County, and Republic Steel Corp. in Uniontown, Fayette County.
Sbaffoni, 51, holds an associate’s degree in Mining Technology from Penn State University and various mining certifications. He resides in Fairchance, Fayette County, with his wife. He has two grown children.
For more information on mine safety, visit the PA PowerPort at www.state.pa.us, PA Keyword: “DEP Mine Safety.”
|Key player in Quecreek rescue gets top safety post
Saturday, July 12, 2003
By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Joseph Sbaffoni, a state mining official who played a prominent role in the rescue of nine miners trapped in the Quecreek Mine accident a year ago, has been appointed the new director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.
The 51-year-old former mining industry manager was instrumental in directing the department's initial response after the Quecreek accident.
During the course of the 77-hour rescue, he provided technical assistance and advice to the Department of Environmental Protection secretary and the governor, as well as media updates.
He has served as program manager for the Bituminous Mine Safety Division for more than 10 years, and was responsible for planning, developing and implementing deep mine safety and miner certification programs.
"Joe Sbaffoni brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the position of director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, which he has gathered from his years within the department and his experience in the mining industry," said DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty.
"We are confident that with his expertise, he will be able to guide the bureau into the future to make the mining industry as safe as possible for those Pennsylvanians who make their living as miners."
Karl Lasher, a DEP spokesman, said Sbaffoni was a key player in the state effort to rescue the nine miners trapped 240 feet below the surface when the Somerset County mine they were working in was flooded with millions of gallons of water after the miners accidentally broke into the adjacent, abandoned Saxman Mine.
According to the outdated and inaccurate maps they were using the Saxman mine should have been more than 300 feet away from where they were digging coal.
"In the early going he made a lot of important decisions and directed the state's early response," Lasher said. "Later he acted as advisor to Gov. Schweiker."
Sbaffoni, who resides in Fairchance, Fayette County, and has an associate's degree in Mining Technology from Penn State University and various mining certifications, has served as program manager for the Field Operations Division for the deep mine safety bureau, and as a bituminous underground mine inspector.
During his tenure as program manager for the bituminous division, the bituminous region experienced a fatal-free year in 1998.
Prior to joining the mining bureau, he worked in management positions for Crescent Hills Co. in Washington, and Republic Steel Corp. in Uniontown.
His appointment is effective Monday.
McGinty announced the Sbaffoni appointment yesterday, shortly before she took the oath of office in a ceremony in Riverfront Park, along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg.
She was confirmed by the state Senate June 3 as the first woman ever to hold the state's top environmental post.
|Sunday, July 13, 2003
Federal official goes underground
OAKLAND — Safety was the keyword Friday morning during U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David D. Lauriski’s tour of Mettiki coal mine.
He spoke with almost 100 of Mettiki’s 220 full-time miners, some fresh and ready to work, others tired with blackened faces.
“I’ve been there,” said Lauriski, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health in May 2001. Lauriski started with a part-time job at his father’s coal delivery business in eastern Utah when he was 13.
During his 30-plus year career, from general manager of Energy West Mining Company to chairman of the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining to President of Lauriski and Associates, he never lost sight of the role safety plays in the potentially hazardous occupation of mining.
Lauriski was the American mining industry’s representative to the International Labor Organization, which developed a worldwide code of mine health and safety standards ratified by the U.S. Senate in Sept 2000.
His first act at Mettiki was to present an award to A.B. Smith, manager of underground operations, for 500,000 employee hours without an accident. He also praised the inventiveness of the miners at Mettiki, designing their own equipment to meet their needs. The roof bolter was designed at Mettiki for safety reasons.
Considering the coal market and competitiveness, many companies do not invest in different equipment. Mettiki is getting a good return on their investment, he said.
Safety is a No. 1 priority at Mettiki, not just a program, said George Tichnell, vice president of operations. The company had 360 days without a work missed accident.
Miners take care of each other, said Jody Theriot, manager of Human Resources and Safety. Many of the miners at Mettiki have worked there for more than 20 years and must be wary of complacency.
Mettiki has 68 emergency medical technicians, identified by their green hats. Employees take the initiative to get training, said Tichnell.
“There’s a great attitude underground,” said Lauriski, who was impressed with the attitudes of the men working in the mine. “It means a lot.”
“The mine looks very good,” he said, after the two hour tour. “You can see how safe it is.”
Lauriski’s vision, designed to enhance miner health and safety and to improve operating efficiency of the agency, reflects the Bush administration’s call for federal agencies to become citizen-centered, results-oriented and innovative. He stresses balancing enforcement, education and training, and technical support, all of which include compliance assistance.
“Certainly, one of the high points of my career was Quecreek,” said Lauriski, of the dramatic rescue in July 2002 of nine miners trapped in an underground Somerset County, Pa., coal mine for more than three days.
A photo of the capsule used to rescue the miners is on the agency’s Internet home page, symbolizing the importance of mine safety and mine rescue teams. The district office is working with individual mining operations to ensure that necessary steps are taken to protect against these incidents, he said.
Photos of the Quecreek Mine and information on mine rescue teams can be found at www.msha.gov.
Trapped miner: 'God saved my life'
Fellow workers helped pull man out after rock fall
|Two mines flooded trapping at least 28 miners |
Twenty-one miners have been trapped inside the Dengfeng coal mine in Henan province since 13 July when the mine flooded. A further 21 miners managed to escape according to reports.
In another flood, seven miners remain trapped in the Fengjiahe coal mine in Shaanxi Province when explosives were set off on 14 July causing a serious water leak. Eleven other miners escaped.
21 miners trapped in flooded mine in Central China
Beijing,Tuesday, July 15, 2003: China has launched a massive rescue effort to save 21 miners who are still trapped beneath a flooded coal mine shaft in Dengfeng city in Central China's Henan province, an official report said today.
Officials from the Henan Provincial Bureau for Supervision of Coal Mine Security said the flooding occurred at the Dongfeng coal mine in Baiping township, Dengfeng city, late last Sunday, and only a half of the 42 miners who were working underground managed to escape.
Soon after the accident, officials from relevant provincial government departments rushed to the site to organise rescue operations, Xinhua news agency reported.
Till now, the flooded water in the main corridor has been pumped out. rescue workers have been busy reinforcing passages to safely rescue the trapped miners beneath the ground.
Dongfeng coal mine is a township-run mine with a history of over 10 years. The mine's legal representative, the leader of the miners, and other administrative personnel fled the site, making it difficult for rescue workers to know the underground situation of the mine, the report said.
The cause of the accident is under investigation.
Thousands of miners die each year in China's coal mines, many in remote locations and operated by private owners with lax safety standards.
28 coal miners trapped in two China accidents
Beijing, Jul 15 - Rescuers were on Tuesday trying to free 28 coal miners trapped following two separate flooding accidents in China, state media said.
Twenty-one of the workers were trapped after a shaft at the Dongfeng Coal Mine in Dengfeng city, central China's Henan province, flooded on Sunday, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Half of the 42 miners working beneath the shaft at the time escaped.
By Tuesday, the flooded water in the main corridor had been pumped out and rescue workers were reinforcing passages to give them access.
Xinhua said that the mine's legal representative, the leader of the miners, and other administrative personnel fled the site, making it difficult for the rescue team to understand the layout of the mine.
In the other incident, seven miners were trapped following a water leakage at the Fengjiahe Coal Mine in Baishui county, northwest China's Shaanxi province on Monday. The leak happened when workers set off explosives, Xinhua said.
Twenty-two miners were underground at the time, but 11 managed to escape. Rescuers later brought out another four men who remain hospitalised.
11 bodies found in flooded Chinese mine
Friday, July 18, 2003 (Beijing):
The bodies of 11 out of 21 miners trapped in a flooded coalmine since Sunday in central China's Henan province have been found.
The search is continuing for 10 other miners in the private mine in Dengfeng city, Xinhua news agency reported.
Flooding occurred at the coalmine late Sunday, and only half of the 42 miners who were working at the time managed to escape.
A preliminary investigation showed the accident might have been caused by flooding from a neighbouring coalmine when the separating wall collapsed.
About 2,000 cubic metres of water is estimated to have entered the mine.
Police have apprehended a vice director of the mine and are trying to trace its administrative personnel.
The mine's legal representative and other administrative personnel allegedly prevented the escaped miners from reporting the accident to local authorities and fled after failing to rescue the trapped miners.
Meanwhile, a separate report said three of the four miners saved from a flooded coalmine in Baishui county, northwest China's Shaanxi province, died in hospital.
Rescue teams are still searching for the remaining three trapped miners.
The township-run Fengjiahe coalmine in Baishui county was flooded on Monday. Twenty-two miners were working underground when the accident took place, but 15 escaped unharmed. (PTI)
Three miners rescued from flooded coal mine die
Three of the four miners saved Thursday from a flooded coal mine in Baishui County, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, died later in hospital.
Rescue teams are still searching for the remaining three trapped miners.
Zhang Rungui, the only one of the four miners to survive, was in stable condition, but cannot be exposed to light after being trapped underground for 70 hours.
The flood occurred around 10 a.m. Monday in the township-run Fengjiahe Coal Mine in Baishui County. The mine was being worked by 22 miners when the accident took place, but 15 escaped unharmed.
|Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Friday, July 18, 2003|
Police Hunt Administrative Personnel of Flooded Coal Mine
|Police are trying to trace the administrative personnel of a flooded coal mine in Dengfeng City of Henan Province, central China, and have apprehended a vice director of the mine. |
A water leak occurred at Dongfeng Coal Mine, Baiping Township, late on Sunday, and only half of the 42 miners who were working inthe mine escaped.
The mine's legal representative, Fan Guoxue, Wang Jili, mine foreman, and other administrative personnel allegedly prevented the escaped miners from reporting the accident to local authorities and fled after failing to rescue the trapped miners.
Rescue teams arrived at the site some 10 hours after the accident took place due to delays in reporting the accident. It was only by rare chance that the 21 trapped miners were rescued.
Dongfeng Coal Mine is a township-owned mine with a history of over 10 years. It was ordered to close for two years to improve production safety and resumed operation last year after passing a production safety examination.
Six Officials Arrested in Mine Flooding
Police in the city of Dengfeng, Henan Province, have apprehended six officials of a coal mine where an underground flooding killed 11 miners and left another 10 still missing.
The officials, including the chief and deputy chief of the Dongfeng Coal Mine, fled from the site after failing to cover up the Sunday accident and preventing miners who survived from leaking the incident, police said.
The cover-up caused great trouble for the rescue work, according to local authorities.
The deputy chief of the mine, Li Honglin, was caught on Monday. The next day, the mine's chief technician, Sun Jianguang, was seized at his home, local police said.
On Thursday, the mine's legal representative, Fan Guoxue, and Niu Shuyun, a distribution official, were captured in Nanzhao and Tongxue counties. Also on Thursday, the mine chief Wang Wenzhi and a major shareholder, Zhang Go, surrendered themselves to police.
Searching is still under way for the 10 missing workers believed trapped in an inundated shaft 15 meters below the main passage.
The flooding hit the Dongfeng Coal Mine, in Baiping Township, late on Sunday, and only half of the 42 miners who were working beneath the shaft escaped.
A preliminary investigation showed the accident might have been caused by flooding from a neighboring coal mine when the separating wall collapsed.
Posted :Fri, 18 Jul 2003 9:30 AEST
Weather hampers PNG mine rescue
Three Queensland firefighters are working around the clock in an attempt to rescue a man trapped in a bulldozer buried in a landslide in a remote area of Papua New Guinea.
Bad weather is hampering rescue efforts, with the bulldozer buried in about 20 to 50 metres of mud and debris at the Ok Tedi mine.
Queensland Fire and Rescue spokesman Gary Littlewood says the bulldozer was lost during a 300-metre landslide and the area is extremely unstable and dangerous.
"They're just putting plans in place now," Mr Littlewood said.
"As soon as the weather lifts they'll board a chopper and get a closer look at the area and then they'll start to work out how they'll actually get down to the area.
"At this stage they think it's about 20 to 50 meters underground."
Queensland Fire and Rescue says visibility is just 30 metres and the men are hoping to go up in a helicopter later today to assess the situation.
"It's very unstable and plus the fact they've got another section on top which is 20 metres wide, which is ready to break off and fall down as well," Mr Littlewood said.
"Before they can actually start any type of rescue they've got to cut this top off the mountain so it won't fall down on top of them as well."
A YEAR LATER, MINE ACCIDENT STILL UNRESOLVED
[Sat Jul 19 2003]
SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) -- A year after the triumphant rescue of nine men from the flooded Quecreek Mine, many of those involved still get choked up thinking about it.
"Watching the miners come up was much like watching our kids being born," says former Gov. Mark Schweiker. An anniversary celebration this week will include a Sunday prayer service and the crowning of "Miss Miracle Miner."
But amid the warm memories, some of the shine has worn off the miracle.
Several of the miners suffer from anxiety and depression. Six have filed lawsuits, and a central figure in the rescue effort committed suicide last month. Investigations into what went wrong at the mine remain secret.
And people in this rural area 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh wonder when the attention will finally stop.
"It's been a year," said Doug Custer, who escaped from the mine ahead of the flood. "It's time to get on with your life."
That may be easier said than done for the nine men who spent 77 hours trapped underground, sharing a single sandwich, writing farewell notes to their families and tying themselves together so all of their bodies would be found if they drowned.
Seven are still on medication, said their lawyer, Howard Messer. Only two -- Randy Fogle and Mark Popernack -- have returned to work.
"You go through this nightmare," Messer said. "It's like being caught in an endless Freddy Krueger movie."
Fogle, Popernack, John Phillippi, Dennis Hall, Ronald Hileman, John Unger, Robert Pugh, Blaine Mayhugh and Thomas Foy were trapped July 24, 2002, when they breached a rock wall that separated their shaft from an abandoned mine. They had thought the other mine was 300 feet away.
The Quecreek Mine was flooded by more than 50 million gallons of water that had collected in the other mine.
Rescuers rushed to drill a man-sized hole to the spot where they believed the miners were, while pumping breathable air through a smaller hole.
On the night of July 27, the drill reached the chamber where the men had been huddling in the dark, and the men were pulled up a narrow shaft in a yellow cage, one by one, in a rescue that transfixed the nation.
The euphoria soon began to wear off.
In November, investigators issued a preliminary report blaming an inaccurate map of the neighboring mine and wondering why a later map, which did show mining in the area where the breakthrough occurred, hadn't been available. The final report hasn't been released while a grand jury investigates.
Six of the miners filed lawsuits alleging past and present mine owners and operators knew or should have known of the danger because tax records showed the area had been mined 40 years earlier.
"The point becomes, what's more important here, the men or the coal," Messer said.
The lawsuits have created some bad feelings, particularly among some miners who worry they could lose their jobs at the Quecreek mine, which reopened in November.
The lawsuits were filed against PBS Coals Inc., which operates the mine.
Messer says the lawsuits aren't intended to put anyone out of business and that the company is insured. But Gerard Cipriani, who represents PBS, said the investigations and lawsuits cost the company plenty.
If Quecreek were to be shut down, it would cost miners their jobs.
Custer, who says his life may have been saved when one of the trapped miners warned his crew of the flood, says that possibility keeps him up nights.
"I bet 90 percent of the guys are worried about it," he said.
Another source of concern has been last month's suicide of Bob Long, who helped pinpoint where the miners were holed up underground. His work helped lead to the drilling of the hole that provided air and warmth to the miners.
Long was the only rescuer to receive, like the miners, $150,000 from The Walt Disney Co. for a TV movie and book, but his participation apparently led to a break with the miners and their families.
Messer said any falling out was short-lived. Long's father, Wally Long, says the rift weighed on his son, but he doesn't know if it played a role in his death. He said his son had other problems.
Fogle went back to working underground early this year. This past week, Mark Popernack took a job with PBS, selling coal. Neither is part of the lawsuits.
Popernack, the only one of the nine willing to speak to The Associated Press, has spent his time fishing and hunting, celebrating a second chance at life.
"I'm just glad to be able to see it rain," he said.
|Buried dreams: Year after accident, miners trying to escape nightmare|
|By KIRK SWAUGER and MIKE FAHER, THE TRIBUNE-DEMOCRAT
||July 20, 2003|
Ron Hileman is haunted by recurring nightmares. Once or twice a week, the rescued Quecreek miner awakens in a panicked sweat, tormented by images of drowning in the darkened mine.
His doctor has prescribed Paxil, an anti-depressant, to ease the psychological pain.
“You have flashbacks,” said Hileman, 50, of Gray, wearing his signature camouflaged “Rocky” cap.
A year later, the “Miracle at the Mine” has developed a dark side, from medicated miners to bitter lawsuits to the suicide of the engineer responsible for pinpointing the nine’s location far under a secluded farm in Lincoln Township.
Now, as thousands of visitors a week make the pilgrimage to the farm, seeking signs of hope in terroristic times, the rescue’s one-year anniversary is stirring vivid memories for Hileman and the other eight Black Wolf Coal Co. miners trapped for 77 hours last July.
While the men and nine others who barely escaped the flooded mine share a common experience, each has reacted differently to the ordeal. Some are still far from recovery, while others have stuck with the only job they know: Coal mining.
“We were thrown into something you couldn’t even imagine,” said the bearded Hileman, sitting in the kitchen of his home in the small village of Gray, a pool in his back yard and white wicker furniture and overflowing potted petunias on the front porch.
Only one of the nine who were trapped, Randy Fogle, has returned to working in the mine. Miner John Unger accompanied Fogle to the spot where the waters broke through six months ago, but he hasn’t gone back.
“You think about everything that happened,” Unger recalled. “How close we came to dying.”
Six of the nine miners are filing lawsuits against Quecreek Mine owner PBS Coals Inc. of Friedens and its parent companies, contending they should have known through county tax records about dangerous floodwaters contained in the adjacent, abandoned Saxman Mine.
“We never asked for this to happen,” miner Blaine Mayhugh said on the day the suits were filed.
While some of the miners openly talk about their harrowing ordeal 240 feet underground and the lingering trauma, others are reticent.
Mark Popernack of Somerset, for instance, isn’t involved in the lawsuit and politely declines an interview seeking comment. Last week, Popernack accepted a job as manager of house coal sales for PBS Coals.
Miner Tom Foy’s comments typify how the miracle has moved from the coal mine to the courtroom.
“I won’t talk to you unless you get clearance from my attorney,” he said over the telephone.
Unger is frustrated by the undercurrent of resentment and controversy that has emerged. He maintains he would trade the acclaim to erase those three days underground, when he thought death would be the only escape.
“Those 77 hours we were trapped weren’t worth anything we’ve gotten,” said Unger, 53, sitting at a table in his modest farmhouse near Thomas Mills.
“I’m not ungrateful for what we got, but I’d gladly trade places. I have a message for the critics: Walk a mile in my shoes,” added Unger, one of three Quecreek miners not involved in the lawsuits.
For Hileman, recalling the ordeal is a roller-coaster of emotions from the devastating terror of thinking he was going to die to the euphoric rush of being whisked to safety in the yellow steel capsule.
Striking the unexpected
The shift began like any other, with the miners chatting on the flat machine that shuttled them into the darkness, miles away from the mine entrance in Quecreek, on July 24.
When Popernack accidentally breached the long-forgotten Saxman Mine, Hileman said crew members thought they had enough time to escape unscathed, like nine other miners from a separate crew managed to do.
But then the water kept rising, and rising.
“We never thought it was going to be that bad,” Hileman said. “We thought it was just a little water. We never dreamt we wouldn’t get out, until hours later when reality set in.”
After pinpointing where the miners likely were trapped, rescuers punctured the mine with a 6-inch air hole, a move Hileman said kept them from suffocating.
The noise from above was solace as rescuers began drilling an escape shaft toward the miners.
Fogle was the crew’s leader, a man credited with twice saving lives during the ordeal. When Popernack was separated from the others early on, it was Fogle who took a potentially fatal gamble by driving a coal scoop into raging floodwaters.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t have too many options,’ ” Fogle recalled in a telephone interview from his Brothersvalley Township home. “I had to try something.”
It worked. Popernack jumped into the machine and was reunited with his crew.
But Fogle refuses to take credit for being a hero, and his memories of the days spent underground are punctuated with reminders that he was just doing his job.
“It’s my responsibility that those guys get outside,” Fogle said. “You cannot get excited in a situation like that.”
That sentiment, as well as vigilantly praying in the darkness, may have helped him deal with death that seemed imminent.
“When I prayed to God, I left the decision in his hands,” Fogle said.
There was more on the miners’ minds than their own situation. They wondered whether the other nine-man crew had heeded their warning to leave when the waters rushed in.
Wendell Horner recalls watching another member of his crew, Ron Schad, taking the warning call and quickly running toward him.
“My first thought was, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ ” Horner said in a telephone interview from his home in Adams Township, Cambria County. “The reality really didn’t hit until we saw the water.”
Horner’s crew tried to drive out of the mine, but the rising flood made it impossible. Their main route soon was impassable, even on foot.
So the crew made a lifesaving decision to get through a door on an air-intake wall. Now, they were on the other side of the wall, which was keeping the flood at bay – barely.
“Every little nook and cranny, this water was trying to get through like a monster,” Horner said.
Finally, the threat became real when a door blew out, sending water in “like a giant fire hose,” Horner recalls.
“It just knocked us down,” he said. “We just sort of all stayed together and supported each other.”
The men made it out in an hour, more than double the time the trip usually took. They were in for another shock when they did not find Fogle’s crew at the mine’s entrance.
“It was the first thing all of us thought of,” Horner said. “I said, ‘I hope those guys are out there waiting on us.’ ”
They weren’t, and there was no way to get back into the mine, though some tried.
“The water was chasing you back out,” he said.
Reality sets in
Far underground, the trapped nine exhausted their options for a possible escape. Everything failed, and reality set in.
“You may not see your family,” Fogle remembered. “You may not see tomorrow.”
The men sought the highest ground possible and tried to take shelter from the water. They wrote the now-famous last notes to their families and went about the desperate and miserable business of simply surviving.
“We were lying on top of each other, just trying to get warm,” Fogle said. “You did get some sleep.”
For a time, the reassuring noise from above stopped as a giant drill bit boring toward the miners suddenly broke. Hours passed as authorities waited for another bit and equipment to arrive.
“We heard them digging, and then it quit,” Hileman said. “Nothing. We had no idea what happened. For me, it was getting hard, physically and mentally. Just laying there, soaking wet on a hard-rock bottom.”
Above ground, Horner and the other escaped miners couldn’t bear to leave the site and ended up working shifts with rescue workers. Miners helped set up pumps, hooked up piping and generally tried to do anything they could.
But there was a gnawing sense of doom.
“The longer it went, I thought, the less chance they had,” Horner conceded.
Moment of truth
Then came the breakthrough, a moment so well-publicized and over-examined that there seems to be countless versions of exactly what happened.
The miners recall being more than a little startled by a microphone dropped down by the rescue team. Once they figured out how to use it, the first question from above – whether they were, in fact, the nine trapped miners – seemed a bit absurd.
“I didn’t know who else they were looking for,” Fogle said.
The crew leader, who had been suffering from chest pains, had to swallow his pride and be the first to be pulled from the mine in a narrow yellow rescue capsule.
“They kicked me out,” Fogle said with a laugh.
Fogle said being greeted on the surface by floodlights and cheering crowds was bedazzling, “kind of like the Fourth of July.” As for their emotions at that moment, some still find it hard to explain.
“We knew it when we were underground – we knew we were going to die,” Fogle said. “Then to have that not happen ...”
But the simple miracle of life may or may not be enough to steady and support those who faced certain death.
Fogle is an extreme example among the nine who were trapped, having returned to work at Quecreek Mine in February. He couldn’t bear to give up his life’s profession and decided to, in his words, “get back on the horse and go.”
“I went back because I wanted to,” Fogle said. “I went back because coal mines are safe.”
His work as a shift foreman can frequently take him to the place where he almost met his end. But it doesn’t bother him now.
Fogle has chosen to not take part in any lawsuits or public protests, but he says he does not begrudge the paths his former coworkers have chosen. Fogle said his decision to go back is personal – and it also keeps his mind from dwelling on the hell he went through.
Constantly reliving the experience, he said, “will kill you sooner or later.”
As for who should bear responsibility for the accident, Fogle has a simple response.
“I think everything was done that could be done, and everything was done that was supposed to be done,” he said. “There’s accidents every day. That’s just the way it is.”
In a sense, Horner never stopped working at Quecreek Mine, having helped with the rescue and subsequent recovery operations. He praised Quecreek operator Black Wolf Coal with helping him get back to mining coal, although he admitted that his first trip into the tunnels after the accident was “just weird.”
“I never felt that way in my life, not even the very first time I went into a mine,” Horner said.
Now, he says, “I can go in every day and I can honestly say I don’t give it a second thought.”
Life’s too short
It hasn’t been so simple for others.
Hileman, a quietly friendly man with a quick handshake, becomes somber when he thinks of the water rushing over his head and the nightmares that won’t go away.
Not a strongly religious man before the accident, he said the three days in hell renewed his faith.
“You knew there had to be a higher power,” Hileman said.
“That’s the only reason we’re here,” he added. “There were 10 people in the mine: The nine of us and God. Without him, we’d be dead.”
Hileman said the memories were beginning to fade ever so slowly before being rekindled by the anniversary. Now, he vows that he’ll never go back underground, despite being a miner for 27 years.
Instead, he is content to sit on his deck, help his wife with a state-licensed daycare in their home, spend time with his daughters. He hunts and fishes occasionally, collects workmen’s compensation and lives “one day at a time.”
“I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” Hileman said. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
“I used to plan for everything, but I don’t anymore. Life’s too short.”
Since the initial whirlwind of celebrity acclaim, from meeting President Bush to standing at midfield for a Pittsburgh Steelers game, the miners’ lives gradually are returning to normal.
Never really drinking buddies despite the perception of “nine for nine,” they have started going their separate ways.
“Time will heal,” Hileman said. “How long it will take, I don’t know. It’s like anything else that’s life-changing.”
Getting myself back
Unger, whose wife, Sue, suffers from multiple sclerosis, hasn’t returned to work. He is coping well without medication and doesn’t see a doctor, but has started chewing tobacco again after quitting three years ago.
He receives workmen’s compensation, and his medical insurance still is paid by the company.
“I’ve just been hanging out, getting myself back,” said Unger, the father of a grown daughter and son. “You deal with it every day. You have to deal with it.”
Unger would love to find an outside job, perhaps in construction. If he doesn’t, he admits he has no trepidation about returning to the mines.
In the meantime, he works on his farm, raising corn, hay, oats and beef cattle and tending a small herd of horses.
“At this point in my life, I’m just looking for something to finish out,” said Unger, wearing a white T-shirt and dungarees.
Unger said he has no lingering effects from the experience, other than occasional bursts of frustration when he just wants to quit whatever he’s doing.
“Just last week, he was doing something, and everything kept breaking,” Sue Unger related. “He said, ‘I’m really frustrated.’ I said, ‘You ought to be glad you’re here to be frustrated.’ ”
" Even bad days,” Unger added, “are good days. Nobody can ever do to you what you’ve already been through.”
TOMORROW: After a year of federal and state investigations, there no definitive answers.
|Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Monday, July 21, 2003|
Casualties Increase to 15 in China's Flooded Coalmine
Another miner's body was found late Sunday in the flooded coalmine shaft in Dengfeng City, central China's Henan Province, increasing the casualty number to 15.
The search is continuing for six other miners who are still trapped beneath the shaft, although the possibility of finding them alive is diminishing, said rescue workers.
The flooding occurred at the Dongfeng Coal Mine, Baiping Township, late last Sunday, and only a half of the 42 miners who were working beneath the shaft at the time escaped.
A preliminary investigation showed that the accident might have been caused by flooding from a neighboring coal mine when the separating wall collapsed. About 2,000 cubic meters of water is estimated to have flooded into the mine.
Among the dead miners that have been found, eight are locals, five from central China's Hubei Province, one from southwestern Sichuan Province and one from Yanshi County of Henan.
|A year later, Quecreek probes reveal little|
|By MIKE FAHER and KIRK SWAUGER, THE TRIBUNE-DEMOCRAT
||July 21, 2003|
Four separate government probes into the Quecreek Mine accident have failed to produce any clear answers on who or what was responsible for nearly killing 18 men last summer.
While federal and state officials supervising the investigations maintain that they are pursuing only the most thorough results, others contend the process has taken far too long and has suffered from a critical lack of focus.
Still worse, critics argue that underground mining is no safer than it was a year ago, despite governmental pledges to the contrary.
It’s all part of a dissonance that has threatened any true resolution of the matter and produced numerous theories, legal actions and public spats that now mark the saga of the Quecreek Nine far more than any talk of miracles.
“It didn’t take the government this long to find out what happened to the space shuttle,” complained Jim Lamont, a United Mine Workers of America representative based in Indiana County and member of a governor’s commission appointed after Quecreek to investigate the mining industry.
At its most basic level, what happened was clear to everyone just hours after the accident: A nine-man crew had accidentally cut into an abandoned mine that was filled with water, sending a potentially deadly wave into Quecreek Mine.
During the riveting three-day rescue operation, there was little elaboration on that theme, other than government officials repeatedly saying old mine maps were inherently inaccurate.
But more difficult questions surfaced soon after the miners did: Why had no one known that the abandoned, flooded Saxman Mine was so close? Who was responsible for putting so many lives in danger? What could be done to prevent this from happening again?
Maps or malevolence
Initially, the government responded rapidly. The mine was pumped dry and examined; miners were interviewed by state and federal officials; former Gov. Mark Schweiker appointed a commission of experts to study the state’s mining industry.
Then the situation began to unravel faster than the government’s theories on what caused the Quecreek disaster.
At an October hearing in Johnstown, several miners accused Quecreek operator Black Wolf Coal Co. of deliberately ignoring signs that the mine was not safe. That prompted U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia, to issue a call for a federal criminal investigation, which commenced soon after.
Another firestorm exploded in November, when the state Department of Environmental Protection released its long-awaited preliminary report on the disaster.
The document exonerated Black Wolf and faulted a long-dead mine inspector and a defunct mining company for inaccurate maps. Critics, including a Pittsburgh attorney representing seven of the nine Quecreek miners, vehemently protested that the state had reached a simplistic, erroneous conclusion.
DEP, in what it said was an effort to show its commitment to thoroughness, took the unprecedented step of allowing another 30 days of public comment on the investigation.
But Lamont has another explanation for the report’s delay.
“It was such a rag, it got kicked back,” he said in a telephone interview.
Since then, DEP’s final report has not been assigned a release date, and a state inspector general’s study of the department’s interpretation of certain mine-safety rules has been withheld.
A report from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration also has not been issued. And neither the state attorney general nor a U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh have finished their criminal probes.
Enforcing existing laws
Attorney Howard Messer, who is representing most of the miners in the ongoing dispute, has announced lawsuits on behalf of six of them. Messer contends Quecreek Mine owner PBS Coals Inc. of Friedens and its parent companies ignored a paper trail of potential danger.
For all of the state’s focus on faulty mine maps, Lamont calls the issue a “smokescreen” and faults a lack of oversight by government regulators going back to the time Quecreek Mine was permitted.
“To me, if the laws on the books were enforced across the board, this would have never happened,” he said.
Robert Ging, a Confluence environmental lawyer who spearheaded a federal probe into Action Mining Co. of Meyersdale destroying Casselman River through a series of secret pipelines a decade ago, believes authorities are missing the obvious.
Since the old mining maps generally are considered inaccurate, Ging said, the DEP should have required Black Wolf’s engineers to drill test holes to locate the boundaries of Saxman Mine before issuing a permit for Quecreek.
“DEP’s not going to investigate itself and find that it did anything improper, particularly in light of the fact that the federal government spent $3 million in restitution for Quecreek,” Ging said. “The DEP’s deep-mine district office has a vested interest in covering their butts.”
Instead of drilling test holes near Saxman, most of the borings were done thousands of yards or even miles away, on sections of land in the Lincoln Township area that were not previously mined, the permit indicates.
Ging argues state mining officials are beholden to the industry they’re supposed to be policing.
“It never had to happen,” Ging said. “There were 18 lives put in jeopardy because people were negligent.
“That’s the DEP’s fault. They’d rather coddle the industry. A lot of these guys could lose their tee times if they force the industry to do what’s right.”
Defending the probes
State officials are quick to defend their investigation, saying they need time to make the right judgments. There have been hints that the state’s report could be issued soon.
“We wanted to do as thorough of a job as we possibly can,” DEP spokesman Karl Lasher said in a telephone interview from his Harrisburg office. “Behind the scenes, believe me, things have not ground to a halt.”
Lasher cites the extra public comment period, the criminal probes and an administration change in January as reasons the state report has been delayed.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is keeping its report under wraps because the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh has not yet finished its criminal investigation.
“They did ask us to delay it, and we did that,” administration spokesman Rodney Brown said in a telephone interview from his Washington office.
Brown called the investigation a “thorough process” and said it will be the federal government’s final word on the matter.
“Usually, when we issue a report, that’s the end of our investigation,” Brown said.
But even assuming that reports and answers are coming soon, critics charge that regulators have failed to use the Quecreek accident as a catalyst for new mine-safety precautions.
“What measures have been taken?” Lamont asked. “I’ll put it simply: None.”
After serving on Schweiker’s mining commission last fall, Lamont concedes the report was woefully incomplete.
“It did not answer a lot of the questions the miners put forth,” Lamont said, adding that the group also did not interview the Quecreek Nine or Black Wolf President Dave Rebuck.
If the commission was supposed to use Quecreek as an example for safety reform, Lamont asks, “How do you do that without knowing what happened there?”
Lasher could not say how many of the commission’s 48 recommendations have been implemented, but he said the report will not gather dust.
“Our investigative team has looked through all of them, and they will be addressed,” Lasher said.
While some in the mining industry have feared a knee-jerk reaction to Quecreek, even Rebuck has called for safety improvements.
Records show that miners should have been farther from the abandoned Saxman tunnels than they were, Rebuck said just days after the rescue last summer.
“Yet, it happened,” Rebuck said at the time. “So something has to change.”
State officials – including Schweiker – say they have improved safety and are far from finished, having proposed new layers of oversight and greater accuracy of mine maps.
Schweiker issued an order in August to increase required safety buffers between some active mines and underground voids.
“It was a severe wake-up call,” Schweiker said in a telephone interview from Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, where he is now president and chief executive officer. “I think we used this potentially tragic experience to bring out some good.”
Though he had hoped to have a final Quecreek report done before he left office in January, Schweiker said he has no regrets or complaints about the Rendell administration’s handling of the ongoing probe.
“The administration, including the governor, is earnest in getting this done properly,” Schweiker said.
On the fence between government leaders and advocates like Messer and Lamont is Raja Ramani, a Penn State professor and mining expert who admits that finding answers to Quecreek is taking a while.
“The frustration is all around, from that point of view,” said Ramani, who chaired Schweiker’s mine-safety commission last year.
But he also said his commission did valuable work, laying the groundwork for future and meaningful change in the mining industry.
Ramani urges those on both sides to look at the overall picture. After spending 40 years studying mines, the professor stresses that accidents and fatalities are decreasing slowly but surely
Major reform, he adds, takes time.
“We have reduced the frequency, and we have reduced the severity (of accidents),” he said in a telephone interview from his State College office.
Ramani said that shouldn’t encourage complacency, whether it relates to Quecreek’s investigations or in any other matter.
“Are we satisfied? The answer is definitely not,” he said. “No one should go underground thinking they might not come out alive.”
No matter what happens, most say whoever comes up with solutions for safety and answers for Quecreek must cut through controversy and politics to focus on the nine men who were trapped, along with every miner who goes underground each day.
“We owe it to those miners to get to the bottom of this,” former DEP Secretary David Hess said in a telephone interview.
Lamont is betting on action and results.
He issued a warning.
“When all this is said and done and all the reports are made public, if the questions we had asked are not addressed, there are going to be people going back to the drawing board,” he said. “Trust me on that.”
|Rescue, lawsuits take toll on mine operators|
|By KIRK SWAUGER and MIKE FAHER, THE TRIBUNE-DEMOCRAT
||July 21, 2003|
FRIEDENS – The owner of Quecreek Mine has lost $1.5 million in expenses tied to the rescue of nine trapped miners a year ago and the subsequent investigations and lawsuits, company executives said.
Two weeks ago, PBS Coals Inc. and its subsidiaries laid off 23 employees, about a tenth of the work force, in a move the company attributes to a reduction in mining activities in the Berlin area.
“The primary reason for the layoffs is we finished up mining at a larger surface job, and moved to a smaller one,” said Jim Martin, PBS’ chief financial officer.
The company concedes that the year since the Quecreek accident has been trying.
In all, PBS spent $3.5 million on the rescue, but $2 million has been reimbursed by the federal governor to outside companies brought in for the operation, Martin and PBS President Robert Scott said.
But PBS continues to be hit financially, spending money in connection with four ongoing government probes of the accident and defending lawsuits filed by the miners.
PBS and its related companies, Quecreek Mining, Roxcoal and Mincorp, all of Friedens, are being sued in Allegheny County Court. Six of the nine trapped miners contend PBS and its engineers should have been aware of Somerset County tax and property records that would have warned operators of the impending danger.
“We’ll have to work through the challenges,” Martin said in an interview at company headquarters, 1576 Stoystown Road.
“But remember, if somebody told us we’d have all these challenges, but all nine guys would come out alive, we’d say, ‘Sure.’ You have to be grateful of the success of the rescue.”
Scott defended the company’s actions leading up to the accident, maintaining it reviewed all available maps to determine boundaries of the abandoned Saxman Mine.
The miners became trapped when they breached the old mine, sending millions of gallons of water gushing into Quecreek’s tunnels.
“Obviously, the industry is looking for answers to the question of the accuracy and the storage of old mine maps,” Scott said. “I think it’s true to say that a lot of mines today are adjacent to old deep mines, and a lot are probably flooded.”
Scott said the company double-checked the accuracy of the maps when obtaining a permit for Quecreek, but conceded that “today, we’d be even more careful.”
While four separate government probes have yet to provide clear answers, PBS officials think they will be exonerated.
“I think we understand the reasons for (the accident),” Scott said. “We’re certainly looking forward to the days when those reports come out.”
“I think we ought to make sure they take as much time as they need,” Martin added.
Time is what some in the coal industry had asked for after the accident, worried that new regulations would come quickly and heavily. While some critics would say that would have been a good thing, George Ellis doesn’t agree.
“Fortunately, so far, we didn’t see that,” said Ellis, director of Pennsylvania Coal Association, an industry group.
In one of the few regulatory moves so far, former Gov. Mark Schweiker issued an order in August demanding that some companies increase the safety barrier between active mines and abandoned mines.
Other changes may be in the works, with a committee Schweiker appointed having made 48 recommendations to improve mine safety.
While acknowledging Quecreek’s significance, Ellis sees last summer’s accident as an anomaly.
“There wasn’t a problem before, or a pattern after,” Ellis said in a telephone interview.
Without completed investigations or resolved litigation, the jury is still out on Quecreek’s long-term effect on PBS Coals. Ellis said the accident’s impact on the state’s coal industry is similarly uncertain.
“I’m not sure we can answer that right now,” he said. “We might need some time to look back.”
|A year after Quecreek, local man still marvels at mine rescue |
|By Jennifer Harr , Herald-Standard
|It has been a year since nine coal miners got trapped 240 feet below the earth's surface at the Quecreek Mine near Somerset. |
Joe Sbaffoni, one of the most prominent figures in the rescue operation that brought them all out alive, still very much marvels at everything that happened last July 24-27.
"Everything went the way it had to go," said the Fairchance man.
That statement has become his refrain.
As the state program manager for the Bituminous Mine Safety Division, Sbaffoni, 51, got a call at home last July 24. He learned that miners Randy Fogle, Mark Popernack, John Phillippi, Dennis Hall, Ronald Hileman, John Unger, Robert Pugh, Blaine Mayhugh and Thomas Foy were trapped after accidentally breaching the wall of an abandoned mine.
Water rushed in. The men, reasoned Sbaffoni, would head to the highest point if they couldn't escape the estimated 50 million gallons of water.
"The negative was when we breached the old mine. Everything else was positive," said Sbaffoni.
Rescue crews found the right place to send down air to the miners. Had they not gotten the air down there, the men would have suffocated.
By the time the fresh air arrived, a couple of the men already had started vomiting because they couldn't breathe, said Sbaffoni.
Again, something positive occurred when the ebbing water that had trapped the miners caused a natural decompression.
But the biggest, most overwhelming positive, said Sbaffoni, was when the super drill got to the miners and the crews on the surface realized that all nine had survived their 77 hours underground.
It was an amazing moment, said Sbaffoni.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Quecreek provided a morale boost for a country that was under a veil of terrorism and questions.
"There was no question the country needed some good news," said Sbaffoni.
The Quecreek site was close to the site of Flight 93, the plane that officials now believe was downed by passengers when terrorists tried to take it over on Sept. 11.
It was an odd mix, said Sbaffoni, and media flocked to the area for Quecreek just as they had eight months earlier.
Sbaffoni said the morning after the breach, there were a few media representatives present. In the coming hours, as news spread of the trapped miners, Sbaffoni saw the numbers of media grow until they took over an old Giant Eagle parking lot and set up a base.
From then on, it was Sbaffoni, along with former Gov. Mark Schweiker, who delivered most of the media briefings. Sbaffoni was Schweiker's technical man, and the two have remained close.
He's also close with most of the miners and their families.
"There were bonds made there that will last for the rest of our lives," Sbaffoni said solemnly.
And, as he repeated often, everything just went how it had to go to bring all the men out alive.
Since he was on television often, Sbaffoni has become more than just a bit of a celebrity. He's done interviews with local, national and international media.
And he's done about 50 programs throughout the state for people who have asked him to. Sbaffoni turned down out-of-state engagements for places from New Orleans to Nova Scotia.
It has been difficult at times, he said, costing him time away from his wife, Gloria, and family.
"Gloria and I figured we'd move to Fairchance and it'd be a nice quiet corner of the earth. Then Quecreek happened," said Sbaffoni, smiling.
And with the anniversary here, he again is getting media requests for interviews and filling them all.
He said he does speaking engagements and media interviews in addition to his regular job duties, and those duties have recently changed.
Earlier this month, Sbaffoni was appointed the new director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, a promotion from his post as the program manager for the bituminous division.
In the year since Quecreek, Sbaffoni has seen more emphasis put on mine mapping. It was an old map that led the Quecreek miners to believe the abandoned mine they breached was much farther away.
Schweiker also enacted initiatives to make mining safer, including a recommendation that legislation governing mining written in 1961 be updated.
A state Department of Environmental Protection report on Quecreek has yet to be released and is still being examined by a grand jury. Sbaffoni said the report could contain more recommendations to make mining safer.
Since being lifted from the mine, six of the miners have filed lawsuits against PBS Coals Inc., the company that operates the mine. The suits claim that owners and operators knew or should have known about the nearby mine, because tax records showed it had been mined about 40 years ago. Two of the nine men have returned to work.
While life has gone on, and memories of the spectacular rescue have faded from the forefront of many memories, for Sbaffoni, not a day goes by when he doesn't tear up, thinking about what happened last year.
"I don't have a day without a tear. That was something to live through," he said, his lip quivering, his eyes watering.
He falls back on something his wife says when he tries to explain why he thinks everything went the way it needed to go.
"Gloria says, 'The good Lord put the right people in the right place at the right time; then he let the world watch and he gave us a miracle,'" said Sbaffoni. "She's right."
Team 4 Investigates Powerful Mine Industry Figure
Paul Van Osdol Reports
POSTED: 5:24 p.m. EDT July 21, 2003
The rescue of the Quecreek miners one year ago focused the world's attention on mine safety, but a Team 4 investigation uncovers claims that politics are getting in the way of mine safety in Pennsylvania.
One of the most powerful figures in the coal industry is Robert Murray, owner of the Ohio Valley Coal Company. Records show he bragged about using his political clout to get federal safety inspectors transferred away from a mine he owns in Washington County. One of those inspectors played a key role at Quecreek.
The following report by Team 4's Paul Van Osdol first aired July 21, 2003, on WTAE Action News at 5 p.m.
The world was watching as the Quecreek miners emerged after 77 hours underground. One of the key figures in their rescue was Kevin Stricklin, a manager with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Just three months before Quecreek, Stricklin and two other inspectors were transferred after coal mine owner Robert Murray met with their superiors. Stricklin oversaw inspections of Murray's Maple Creek mine in Washington County, and he had been cracking down.
For the first time, Stricklin talked about it with Team 4.
Stricklin: "We found a lot of violations, a lot of problems. My people who work for me take it very personal."
Records show that in 2001, Maple Creek had an injury rate more than twice the national average. MSHA fined Maple Creek $223,000 that year.
Van Osdol: "Was Mr. Murray ever threatening to you or aggressive with you over your enforcement activities?"
Stricklin: "No. I had a couple meetings with Mr. Murray and I found him very congenial."
But records obtained by Team 4 show Murray bragged about getting the inspectors transferred, saying one of Stricklin's colleagues was "now riding a desk in hard coal."
Ed Yankovich, United Mine Workers: "It's a scary thought that this could happen. That is a very disturbing message, I think, for the safety of all coal miners throughout this country."
A spokesman for Murray declined to comment about the MSHA transfers.
Records show Murray also complained about inspectors at a coal mine in Alledonia, Ohio, where there were nearly $400,000 in fines the past two years. Murray met with top officials in MSHA's Morgantown office and invoked the name of a U.S. senator.
Meeting minutes quote Murray saying, "Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss." Their boss is Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees MSHA. Her husband is Mitch McConnell, a Republican senator from Kentucky.
Records show Murray and his employees have given nearly $800,000 in campaign contributions the past six years -- nearly all of it to Republicans.
Stricklin says he knows about Murray's political clout, but he never let it affect him.
Stricklin: "It wouldn't be fair of me to not protect the miners because of a friendship Mr. Murray has with Mr. McConnell."
Murray owns several other coal companies. In May, one of them along with four of its executives were convicted in federal court of violating federal mine safety laws. Ironically, Murray won a safety award just days later from an industry group with close ties to MSHA.
"The fact that Mr. Murray won this international award shows he is committed to running a safe operation," a spokesman for Murray tells Team 4.
But the Mine Workers Union worries that safety may be taking a back seat to politics.
Yankovich: "Certainly you know when you look at all the pieces of the puzzle, sooner or later you get a picture."
Stricklin got a promotion earlier this year. He's now managing the MSHA district in Morgantown. The former district manager -- one of the other people Murray complained about -- has taken legal action to fight his transfer.
Last year, fatalities in coal mines fell to a record low. But the rate is up this year and MSHA is trying to figure out why.
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