Once Again, Drillers Rise to the Challenge
Everyone who has ever drilled a hole knows the coal mine rescue at the Quecreek mine near Somerset, Pa., was more than nine guys coming out of a hole in the ground 250 feet deep. The chain of events that fused this rescue together can only be described as amazing.
Whatever you want to call it, the individuals who came together over those few days to work together used skill, determination and teamwork to accomplish one goal - to save nine miners.
The person who coordinated the efforts of the miners, Larry Neff of Beth Energy, says, "It came down to good men who did their job, did exactly what they were trained to do. What those men did isn't new to them - they are professionals. The difference is that they worked in extreme conditions and did it in hours instead of days.
We have seen interviews with the miners and their families, and a few of the rescuers, too. But the truly great thing that happened in Somerset was the selfless heroism found within every individual involved in the rescue.
Those who executed this rescue could easily be compared to emergency workers who give their all in a crisis situation. The men and women who came together to keep those nine alive truly are heroes. Hundreds of people worked around the clock to drive those 13 lifesaving holes in the ground.
Every person involved deserves a huge thank you from the nine and those who know them, but our industry should also give them a solid slap on the back. And don't forget the people who supported those drillers. Everyone performed beyond the call, from the many companies that worked tirelessly to manufacture an overshot to fish out a broken bit, to the volunteers from the Salvation Army who didn't leave the site in three days.
Like the dozens of people at Keystone Drill Services and Lincoln Supply who worked around the clock and offered everything from milling and welding services to coordination skills and equipment, everyone stepped up to the challenge. Not to miss anyone, a list has been gathered to accredit those who supported the rescue mission.
All of us associated with the drilling industry can stand proud to know those folks did their best and defined themselves as true professionals. We know, if called upon, there isn't a person in the business who wouldn't have done the same to save those lives. The following is an overview of events by those who were involved and an accounting of what it took to keep the "nine alive."
First CallsAt about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31, a mining machine in the Quecreek mine broke through a shaft in the abandoned Saxman mine. The opening of the mine was over a mile from where nine miners were working. The higher elevation of the point where the abandoned mine was breached caused an estimated 60 million gallons of water to drain into the Quecreek mine.
The only way the miners could escape the influx of water was to move deeper into the mine where the slope of the shaft allowed them a temporary high point. In a tunnel slightly more than 4 feet high, the miners moved through 4-foot-deep water toward the furtherest depths of the mine.
In a space approximately 70 feet long, 18 feet wide and 4 feet to 5 feet high, the miners waited as the water continued to rise. The air was running out, to the point one said they were getting light headed and chests were beginning to feel heavy.
Air Shaft NeededAt about 10:30 p.m., Lou Bartels got a call from Joe Gallow, the mining engineer for Black Wolf Mine Co., which runs the operations at the Quecreek Mine. He was told there was an accident and there were men trapped in the mine.
Gallow was looking for someone to drill an air shaft into the mine to supply air to the trapped miners. Ultimately, Gallow would call a number of drillers that night to help with the rescue efforts, but because Bartels' blasthole drill was closeby, he could have a drill to the mine in a matter of hours.
Over the next four days, at least seven contractors had drills working onsite with one other driller on standby.
Because Bartels is a blasthole driller, he didn't have the necessary steel to go 300 feet loaded on his rig. Additional steel was brought in and loaded on the drill onsite.
Bartels was onsite and drilling at approximately 2:30 a.m. He was using an extreme duty 6-inch IR hammer and bit, and broke through the ceiling of the mine shaft at approximately 5:30 a.m.
Initially, he was asked to trip out of the hole so it could be cased and valved. But he felt it would be better to keep his bit in the hole, continuing to pump air into the hole. From Wednesday night through Saturday, his drill never shut down.
"We didn't even check the oil, just added fuel," says Bartles. They did get an auxiliary compressor ready in the event his rig shut down. He estimated he could be back on line in a few minutes if it was needed.
Getting Them OutAnother one of the first drillers contacted was Duane Yost of Gene D. Yost & Son Inc., Mt. Morris, Pa. Knowing he would be significantly delayed getting to the site if he had to ship everything needed to the site, one of the first calls he made was to Tom Walker of Keystone Drill Services.
Something that is significantly noticeable about this rescue is the number of advantageous coincidences or lucky twists of fate that added up in the success. A person can define them any way he would like, but fate certainly was on the side of the miners.
Not 100 yards from the rescue holes, there was a lake that would have made it impossible to drill into the mine. And the dewatering holes that were so critical in the rescue efforts were in the corner of a cornfield on the edge of a ravine that drops down a steep valley to a riverbed.
Another coincidence was the availability of technical and human resources. Tom Walker is Ingersoll-Rand's top high-pressure compressor distributor in the United States. His headquarters is located 4 miles from the rescue site.
His crews worked around the clock to offer service to the drill crews and other companies lending supplies and services. Keystone happens to have three Scorpion breakout tools that were critical for speed to change out the tools used in the rescue. Keystone had one at the site and one at its shop.
When Yost called Walker very early Thursday morning, he couldn't have known Keystone had only a single compressor in its yard. Every other high-pressure compressor was out on rent. But that didn't stop Tom Walker or Bill Lincoln, Keystone's service manager, from jumping on the phones.
Lincoln contacted both Ingersoll-Rand's compressor manufacturing plant in Mocksville, N.C., and Union Drilling Inc., Bridgeville, Pa., looking for high-pressure air. The unit in Keystone's yard was moved directly to the rescue site. Later in the morning, Mike Poole of Union Drilling called Keystone, offering everything it had for the rescue effort. Compressors began to be shipped in immediately from all over the East Coast. By Thursday evening, Union Drilling had delivered 6,600 cubic feet of high-pressure air.
Another of the drilling contractors onsite was Larry Winckler of Falcon Drilling, Indiana, Pa. He drilled one of the first dewatering holes in a cornfield a quarter-mile from the rescue holes. The first was drilled by Sperry Drilling of Berlin, Pa., using a T3W. As Falcon's crew was moving to begin another dewatering hole, they were asked to move their rig to the location of the rescue site. The first rig on site had shanked its bit and plans were underway to begin a second shaft.
Winckler also was impressed with Keystone's response and support. "Tom's (Walker) people were fabulous. They got our air set up... we just didn't have enough people to do everything." At the height of the rescue efforts, Winckler had two Ingersoll-Rand RD drills operating with a total of 31 men.
"It was a total team effort," says Winckler. "When Duane Yost finally drilled into the mine Saturday night, he came right over to help my crew fish out our drill string." Winkler's team drilled to 195 feet with a QL200S and a 30-inch bit. They sheared off the pin between the stabilizer and the drill string, and had to fish out the broken pieces before reaching the mine. The consensus was to keep two holes going because they may have needed the 30-inch shaft to pull out the miners who were larger in stature.
Rescue shaft one was the primary recue hole. Yost Drilling was first on the scene to begin drilling a large-diameter hole. When they started drilling Thursday evening, the crew started off with a recently acquired hammer and 29-inch bit. Things were moving along smoothly until they came to 110 feet.
That is where they shanked the bit. It broke at the intersection where the shank meets the drill head. For the next 15 hours or so, an army of men made different configurations of overshot and fishing tools that would work to retrieve the estimated 1,500-pound bit.
Finally, after a thread configuration was obtained from the manufacturer, they were able to make the tool that ultimately would fish out the broken bit.
Totally, there would be three different bits to go into drill shaft one. After the shanked bit was retrieved, Yost continued drilling with a 29-inch bit on an IR QL200 hammer, and ultimately it was that hammer with a 26-inch bit that would break through on Saturday just after 10:00 pm.
Over the three days, Keystone worked with its suppliers and customers to bring whatever equipment was needed to the rescue site. Like Falcon Drilling's Winckler says, "You know, 30-inch bits and hammers don't grow on trees. They are too expensive to just have laying around."
On Thursday night, the compressors, hammers and bits that Walker had called for in the morning started arriving. Ingersoll-Rand, over the three-day period, made four trips to Keystone's shop to pick up, and then deliver, all the equipment. "Both Winckler and Yost had two drills working at the site with QL hammers brought up from Roanoke," says Walker.
Yost's second drill, an IR T4W, was drilling dewatering holes in the cornfield. Between Thursday and Saturday, it drilled three holes. The largest was a 24-inch hole that was drilled into the deepest part of the mine at about 300 feet. "That hole took just 12 hours to drill," Yost explains.
Other drillers were working in the area, too. Leo Kay of LK Drilling, Indiana, Pa., was drilling dewatering holes in the cornfield. Wayne Bolden of Wayne's Water N' Wells, Oakland, Md., was drilling dewatering and observation holes.
Bolden had two T3Ws working in the rescue efforts. He was drilling 8-inch holes so listening equipment could be lowered into the mine to listen for voices.
Total Team EffortLike Keystone Drill Service, many companies came together to rescue those miners. Union Drilling Inc. is the largest oil and gas drilling company in the eastern United States. That company didn't have a drill on site, but they did provide many of the IR 1070/350 compressors used on site.
Union was called up early in the rescue efforts by Keystone to help with the air compressor needs. Walker says, "I'll bet Mike Poole at Union called me a half-dozen times just to make sure we didn't need anything."
Each of the two main rescue shafts needed a lot of air. There were a total of 12 auxiliary compressors working in addition to the 1250/350 on the RD 20 and the 1050/350 working on Falcon's RD 10. Five of those units were 1070/350s supplied by Union.
Of the four drills sinking dewatering holes, each had at least one extra compressor and some had two.
Winckler says when he was on location, he got many calls from his competitors. They were all calling to offer assistance or equipment. "When someone is in need, there is no such thing as competition," he says.
There were many suppliers of hammers, bits, and other tools and equipment working together. The shop at Keystone was full of people working on fabricating tools or using shop equipment. Three different companies worked together to make a fishing tool to get the broken bit from shaft one.
Sunrise Drill Supply of Sykesville, Pa., was first on the scene with a fishing tool, and Center Rock from Berlin, Pa., and Star Iron Works Inc. of Big Run, Pa., ultimately worked together to make the overshot that got the bit from the hole.
There were many companies like these that brought manpower and services. Blue Dot of Bridgeville, Pa., also was called in and had a fishing tool flown in on a National Guard helicopter.
There were many others who deserve additional credit, such as Baroid Drilling Fluids, which provided hundreds of gallons of drilling soap. And Lincoln Supply kept people working around the clock to fabricate the pressurized escape system in the event it was necessary to keep the mine pressurized.
When it came right down to it, everything turned out great. Like Neff notes, "We didn't have time for a learning curve; we made the plan as we went along."
Hopefully this will never happen again, but there are a couple hundred men and women who know what it takes to do the job right.