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Nine trapped in Somerset mine as water rises

Nine coal miners were trapped in a flooded shaft early Thursday after they apparently ruptured a nearby abandoned mine that was filled with water, officials said. Hours later, rescuers reported hearing tapping.
The tapping created “a glimmer of hope” that the miners, who were trapped at the Quecreek Mine late Wednesday, are safe, said Betsy Mallison, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
“It is a race against time because the water is still filling (the mine),” she said. “We don’t want to raise expectations at this time, but it’s a good sign.”
Rescue workers at the mine about 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh heard the tapping around 3 a.m. after drilling a 6-inch-wide air hole. David Sbaffoni, with the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, said he has no doubt that at least some of the miners were alive after a second round of tapping was heard around 6 a.m.
“We tapped and we heard tapping back,” Sbaffoni said. He said the miners apparently dashed into an air pocket about 200 feet from where the wall of the abandoned mine was breached.
Emergency crews planned to bring in a larger drilling rig to bore a 36-inch wide hole down to where the miners are believed to be. Then, a basket would be lowered to the miners. Officials said it could take as many as 18 hours to drill the larger hole.
“It’s a very ticklish situation we’re in” with water still filling the mine, said David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s very touch and go.”
Another crew of miners had managed to wade to safety in water up to their necks after the accident shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday sent water gushing into the mine, authorities said.
The two crews of miners were 300 feet underground and about a mile and a half from the entrance when they hit the adjacent, abandoned mine that was last active in the 1950s, Mallison said. That mine did not appear on maps, authorities said.
The first crew was able to radio the second and warn them about the water, officials said.
“Some of the guys were able to get out and were wading in water up to their necks,” said Alan Baumgardner, a dispatcher with Somerset County emergency services.
About 80 relatives of the miners gathered inside a fire hall in Sipesville, about two miles from the mine. Red Cross grief counselors were on hand, and the mood inside the fire hall was described by a disaster worker as tense, with little talking as the families huddled together.
Authorities said the mine shaft has a dip in one area. The second crew was working in the lower area closer to the entrance when the flooding happened. The dip is now flooded and the first crew is trapped between the water and the end of the mine shaft, authorities said.
The mine was being excavated using a technique in which miners excavate roomlike sections leaving behind pillars of coal that can support the roof.
Members from a specialized mine rescue team from Indiana, Pa., as well as the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety and federal occupational safety experts were on the scene.
There has been at least one prior accident at the mine, operated by Black Wolf Coal Co., according to the state Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. No one was injured when a 40-by-30-foot section of the roof collapsed last October.
The company employs about 30 miners, according to department records. The mine began operations about a year ago, the company said.
The site is in Lincoln Township in largely rural Somerset county, about 10 miles northwest of the scene of the crash of hijacked Flight 93 during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Mine worker Ted Lepley, who works for Black Wolf Coal but was not on the scene at the time of the accident, stood near the mine’s entrance and awaited word.
“Those are my brothers down there,” Lepley said. “God help them. Nobody knows what’s going on.”