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Hope remains as drilling goes on

A broken drill bit frustrated rescuers Friday morning as they frantically tried to save nine miners trapped for a day and a half in a flooded mine shaft 240 feet underground.
Work on a rescue shaft being drilled went smoothly until a drill bit broke early Friday, when it hit hard rock or coal about 100 feet down.
Rescuers want to bore the 2 1/2-foot-wide hole and send a basket down to retrieve the miners. Gov. Mark Schweiker said it would take time to retrieve and replace the bit.
“We’re stopped,” Schweiker said. “We have to bring it up and replace it and begin anew. … It puts you in a prayerful mood.”
Rescuers remained hopeful that some or all of the miners, ages 30 to 55, had survived the flooding of the Quecreek Mine, though they have been trapped in a 4-foot-high chamber since Wednesday evening. Among the fears is that hypothermia — illness because of exposure to cold — could develop because miners were exposed to the chilly water.
Workers on Thursday heard several taps on a 6-inch air hole drilled down to where the miners were believed to be. No more tapping was heard overnight, but noise from the drilling and other machinery could have accounted for that.
A replacement drill bit was brought in. Crews also needed a special tool to retrieve the broken drill bit, and that was still being flown in. Workers were beginning preparations to drill a second rescue shaft about 75 feet from the first.
Officials originally predicted it would take 18 hours to reach the miners after drilling began.
“We’ve got quite a few hours of drilling,” Schweiker said.
Officials cautioned that they did not know how many men might still be alive.
“This is a very tricky and dangerous situation, and I don’t want to raise expectations,” said David Hess, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection.
Said Betsy Mallison, a spokeswoman for Hess’ department: “We have not given up hope on the miners. We are working very diligently to get them out.”
One piece of good news was that it appeared the water level inside the mine 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh was dropping as crews pumped water out. It was believed as much as 60 million gallons of water rushed into the mine shaft when the miners inadvertently broached the wall of an adjacent, abandoned mine about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Maps had shown the adjacent mine, closed since the 1950s, to be farther away.
The men were believed to be inside a small, dark, 4-foot-high air pocket, which may or may not be flooded.
At the drill site, in a small depression off the highway between a pasture and a church and cemetery, neighbors sat on a fence Thursday night and watched the scene, brightened by floodlights and accompanied by a rumbling noise.
Dawn broke at the site Friday with intermittent rain amid occasional flashes of lightning, but the drone of machinery continued as crews worked steadily above the mine, pumping air into the chamber and water out.
Through the thin air shaft drilled earlier, workers could determine that the water stopped rising around 8 p.m. Thursday, said Joseph Sbaffoni, with the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.
Medical units were standing by, and decompression chambers were also brought in.
“They’re working feverishly; you can sense when people are determined and have their grit about them,” Schweiker said Thursday night.
He toured the site and met with about 80 family members who had gathered privately at a fire hall in nearby Sipesville. Later, officials allowed them a brief visit to the mine, which is about 10 miles from the field where hijacked Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11.
“They could see and hear and feel what was going on,” Hess said. Sbaffoni said Thursday the men were probably sitting in the cramped space, their lamps long since gone out.
“It’s probably wet, cold and dark,” he said. “Coal miners are a special breed. If anybody can get through it, a coal miner can.”
Sbaffoni said the miners apparently dashed into an air pocket, water rushing past them. Another crew of miners managed to wade to safety in water up to their necks.
“It’s just about like being buried alive. You don’t know dark until you’ve been in a coal mine,” said Clark Shaulis, an 82-year-old retired miner who stopped by a nearby church to pray for the crew. “If they’re still down there, I’m sure of one thing: They’re praying.”
The mine was opened in 2000 by Black Wolf Coal Inc. and employs about 60 miners.
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On the Net:
State mine bureau: http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/minres/dms/dms.htm
Federal mine safety: http://www.msha.gov/welcome.htm