QUECREEK MINE RESCUE
By the time Duane Yost got the first call at about 12:30 Thursday morning, the wheels were already in motion. The voice on the other end said drillers who could get to Somerset, Pennsylvania fast were needed to pump water out of a mine.
Joe Gallo, an engineer for Black Wolf Mine Company, was telling Yost there were miners trapped in a coal mine, but if they could get them to high ground — and if enough water could be pumped out of the mine — the miners had a chance.
At that time, it wasn’t known exactly how deep the men were or even how many were down there, but it was estimated they would need at least 300 feet of drill pipe and a 12-inch hole.
Yost got on the phone with his drill pusher for rig number 15, an Ingersoll-Rand T4W. The rig was in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, and after picking it up, they would meet at the shop. They loaded the necessary pipe and mobilized by 3:30 a.m.
With one drill on the way to Somerset, Yost went home to get some rest, but the thought of those guys in the mine kept spinning in his mind. By 5:30 a.m., Yost was back on the phone with Gallo asking how they were going to get the miners out.
He offered a solution: he volunteered his Number 18 drill, an Ingersoll-Rand RD-20 capable of drilling the 30-inch hole that may be necessary to pass a rescue capsule down to the miners.
Over the next few days, a half-a-dozen drills would be punching holes into the mine to extract water. Hundreds of individuals came together over those few days using skill, determination and teamwork to accomplish one goal: to save nine miners.
The person who coordinated the efforts of the drillers — Larry Neff of Beth Energy — said, “it came down to good men who did their job…did exactly what they were trained to do.” What those drillers did isn’t new to them; they are professionals. The difference is that they worked in extreme conditions, around the clock, and performed tasks in hours that would normally take days.”
Every person involved in the rescue deserves a huge thank you, from the nine trapped miners and those who know them, certainly; 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 the broken bit, to the workers 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 offering everything from milling and welding services to coordination skills and equipment, everyone stepped up to the challenge. If you are associated with the drilling industry, 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.
At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, 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 abandoned mine at higher elevation was breached, causing an estimated 60 million gallons of water to drain into the Quecreek mine.
The only choice to escape the influx of water was to move deeper into the mine where the slope of the shaft allowed the miners a temporary high point. In a tunnel 4 ½ feet high, the miners moved through 4 feet of water toward the furthest depths of the mine.
In a space approximately 70 feet long, 18 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet high, the miners waited as the water continued to rise. The air was running out, to the point one of the miners said they were all getting light headed and chests were beginning to feel heavy.
Engineers from the mine began making calls to area drillers. They needed to get water out of the mine and air into it.
The first drilling contractor to drill into the mine would be Sperry Drilling, with their Ingersoll-Rand T3W. Although they were on site by midnight, the crew was moved to a staging area to wait for surveyors to arrive.
During the night, they would make a number of trips to their shop in Berlin, Pennsylvania, to retrieve loads of casing in the event it was needed.
Judy Bird, owner of Sperry Drilling, and her crew began drilling at approximately 6:00 a.m. and had the first de-watering hole drilled into the mine five hours later. That first de-watering hole was at 295 feet. These dewatering holes were vital in the rescue efforts. Without them, and quick, the miners would have drowned.
At about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Lou Bartels also got a call from Joe Gallo. He was told there was an accident and that there were men trapped in the mine.
Ultimately, Gallo and other Black Creek employees would make many life-saving calls to a number of drillers that night asking their help with the rescue efforts. Over the next few days, six drilling contractors had rigs working on site with one other driller on standby.
Because Bartels is a blasthole driller and hardly ever drills below 50 feet in a pass, he didn’t have the necessary steel to go the estimated 300 feet to the mine shaft. Additional steel was brought in and loaded on the drill.
Bartels was on site and drilling at approximately 2:30 a.m. He was using an Extreme-duty 6 ½ inch IR hammer and bit, and broke through the roof of the mine shaft at approximately 5:30 in the morning.
Initially, he was asked to trip out of the hole so it could be cased and valved, however, he felt it would be better to keep his bit in the hole, continuing to pump air and maintain pressure in the shaft. From Wednesday night to Saturday around 10:00 p.m. his drill never shut down.
“We didn’t even check the oil; we just added fuel,” said Bartels. 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.
Another one of the first drillers contacted was Duane Yost of Gene D. Yost & Son, Inc. of Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania. Knowing he would be significantly delayed getting to the site if he had to ship everything needed, 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 that added up in the success. A person can define them any way he would like, but fate was certainly on the side of the miners.
Not 100 yards from the rescue holes was a lake that would have made it impossible to drill into the mine had the shaft been any closer. And the de-watering holes that were so critical in the rescue efforts were in the corner of a corn field on the edge of a ravine that drops down a steep valley to a river bed. It was sheer luck that the rescue attempt was even possible.
Another coincidence was the availability of technical and human resources. Keystone Drill Services, Inc. is Ingersoll-Rand’s top high-pressure air compressor dealer and one of the top three down-hole-drill distributors in the United States. Their headquarters is located just four miles from the rescue site.
Service crews worked around the clock to offer whatever was needed to the drill crews. Keystone happened 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 their shop working constantly.
A taste of bad luck was when Yost called Walker very early Thursday morning; he couldn’t know Keystone had only one high-pressure air compressor in their yard. Every other unit was out on rent. But that didn’t stop Tom Walker or Bill Lincoln, Keystone’s service manager, from jumping on the phones.
Bill Lincoln contacted both Ingersoll-Rand’s compressor manufacturing plant in Mocksville, North Carolina, and Union Drilling, Inc., an oil and gas drilling company out of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, looking for more high-pressure air. Union Drilling offered Keystone whatever they needed and IR loaded two 1070/350s on a truck that night. Compressors began to ship in immediately from all over the east coast.
Mike Poole, VP at Union Drilling, called Walker later that morning and many times over the next couple of days offering more services and equipment to the rescue efforts.
By Thursday evening, Union Drilling had delivered 6600 cubic feet of high-pressure air and two booster compressors.
Another of the drilling contractors on site was Larry Winckler of Falcon Drilling from Indiana, Pennsylvania. He also drilled one of the first de-watering holes in the corn field.
As Falcon’s crew was moving to begin another de-watering hole, they were asked to move to the location of the rescue site. The first rig on site had shanked it’s bit and discussions were underway to begin a second rescue shaft.
Winckler was also 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 an IR RD-10 and RD-20 operating with a total of 31 men on site.
“It was a total team effort,” said Winckler “when Duane Yost finally drilled into the mine Saturday night, he came right over to help my crew fish-out our drill string.” Winckler’s team drilled to 195 feet with a QL200S and a 30-inch bit on rescue shaft two.
At 190 feet, he knew progress was slowing down, but he was told to just keep going.
Falcon sheared off the pin between the stabilizer and the drill string and had to fish out the broken tools.
The consensus had been to keep two holes going because they may have needed the 30-inch shaft to pull out the miners who were larger in stature. But once it was determined all the guys would fit in the 24-inch basket, attempts to fish out of hole two were put on hold.
Winckler said he knew they were pushing too hard. “In a normal situation, we would have tripped out and checked everything out before it broke. Under that intense pressure and the emotion of the situation, there was a constant battle between knowing what you should do as a driller and just getting those guys out.”
“We are so proud of our employees, as I’m sure all companies involved are. But I think our people shine pretty well and I can’t be more happy about that,” said Winckler.
Rescue shaft one was the primary rescue 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 when 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 1500 lb 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.
After a couple unsuccessful tries with the fabricated tool, Yost got really serious. “We torqued it all the way up, which is about 8000-foot lbs. Then we tightened her more. I mean you could hear it down there going ‘rrrrrr…rrrrrr’ — metal to metal.”
“We started pulling. I think at one time we were pulling at about 30,000 lb. Instead of popping it off again, I just kind of set it back down. I put air to it and sat there and blew on it for about 10 to15 minutes cleaning the hole,” he said.
When he got done cleaning the hole, he backed off on the air not wanting to blow the bit off. Then he started pulling. When the tool came out of the hole, the bit was there. “It was a very good moment for everyone at the site…I can’t really describe it. I had gotten to a point to where I couldn’t even look over my shoulder because I knew the families were watching. I can’t describe the feeling,” said Yost.
Totally, there would be three different bits to go into rescue shaft one. After the shanked bit was retrieved, Yost continued drilling with a 29-inch bit on an IR QL200S hammer provided by Keystone. The 29-inch bit was rushed to Keystone by Joy Hohenstein of United Drilling. Joy was bringing the 29” bit up the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a pickup when she encountered an accident about 3 miles east of the exit. Not to be held up by traffic, Joy exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike at a construction area and headed for Keystone’s shop. United Drilling is the largest elevator shaft drilling contractor on the east coast.
Ultimately, it was that QL200 hammer with a 26-inch bit that would break through on Saturday night just after 10:00 pm.
Over the three days, Keystone worked with its suppliers and customers to bring whatever was needed to the rescue site. Like Larry Winckler said, “you know, 30-inch bits and hammers don’t grow on trees…they are too expensive to just have around.”
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 delivering equipment and tools. “Both Winckler and Yost had two drills working at the site with QL200 hammers brought up from Roanoke,” said Walker.
Yost’s second drill, an IR T4W was drilling de-watering holes in the corn field. 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,” said Yost.
Other drillers were working in the area too. Leo Kay of LK Drilling was drilling de-watering holes in the corn field. Wayne Bolden of Wayne’s Water N’ Wells was drilling de-watering and observation holes.
Bolden had two T3W’s working in the rescue efforts. He was drilling 8-inch holes so listening equipment could be lowered into the mine to listen for voices.
Many companies came together to rescue those miners. Like Judy Bird said, “we were ready to do whatever was necessary…everyone pulled together.”
Union Drilling, Inc. of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania is the largest oil & gas drilling company in the eastern US. They didn’t have a drill on site, but they did own many of the IR 1070/350 compressors used on site.
Each of the two main rescue shafts needed a lot of air. There was a total of 12 auxiliary compressors working in addition to the 1250/350 on Yost’s RD-20 and the 1050/350 working on Falcon’s RD-10. Five of those auxiliary units were 1070/350’s supplied by Union.
Each of the two main rescue holes required approximately 6000 cfm of air. And of the four drills sinking de-watering holes, each had at least one extra 1070/350 compressor, and some had two.
Larry Winckler said 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 said.
There were many suppliers of hammers, bits, and other supplies working together 24 hours a day. The shop at Keystone was full of people all working on fabricating tools or using shop equipment. Four different companies worked together to help with a fishing tool to get the broken bit from shaft one.
Ultimately, it was Keystone’s overshot that was modified by Star Iron of Big Run, Pennsylvania, flown in by helicopter, that was used to fish out the shanked bit. Sunrise Drill Supply of Sykesville, Pennsylvania and Center Rock from Berlin, Pennsylvania would also lend fishing tool support. Blue Dot Services of Bridgeport, West Virginia assisted Falcon Drilling in fishing out of rescue hole two on Sunday.
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.
Mike Poole summed it up. “We were just drillers. There were no egos or competition, just a lot of selfless people working together. It was a great day for the drilling industry.”