Rescued Ohio miners describe 'harrowing experience'
Share with others:
When the mine shaft's roof collapsed behind Gary Dulkoski, it sounded like a bomb exploded. A blast shook the tunnel. Dust filled the air.
As things cleared, Mr. Dulkoski could see the bad news in the form of a dead end before him and a floor-to-ceiling pile of rubble behind him.
"We're trapped," the veteran roof bolter told his young partner, Jacob Harris. "We can't go nowhere."
It was Wednesday morning, hundreds of feet below Hopedale, Ohio. The men were already well into their shifts and about three miles into the mine. As most people were starting their work day and guzzling a second cup of coffee, the two miners were hoping they could simply stay alive.
Word of the collapse at the Hopedale Mining LLC bituminous coal operation, about 55 miles from Pittsburgh, traveled quickly.
"We were on our last row in the 'E' to 'F' entry and down she come behind us," Mr. Dulkoski said Thursday. "My God, I mean you couldn't see back there it was so dusty. And after all the dust had settled, I mean there was just tons and tons of rock. I didn't know how much. Later on I could hear somebody hollering in the background, 'Are you all right? Are you all right?' I hollered real loud, 'Yeah!' "
It was about 9:30 a.m. For the next nine-odd hours, Mr. Dulkoski, 60, of New Philadelphia and Mr. Harris, 23, of Unionport would inhabit a space roughly 30 feet long, 18 feet wide and 5 feet high. Although the collapse cut the power, a roof bolting machine was already pressurized to support the mine roof in the area known as a crosscut, or a spur running from one tunnel toward another at a 60-degree angle.
"I've been a coal miner for over 20 years, and it was a harrowing experience," Mr. Dulkoski said. "I never want to experience anything like that again. It was terrible."
They spent a lot of time sitting and talking. Mr. Dulkoski, nicknamed "Zag" -- his brother is "Zig" -- said he tried to bolster the spirits of Mr. Harris, nicknamed "Gutshot."
"He was really shaking. He didn't think he was gonna make it. I kept trying to reassure him everything's gonna be all right."
Relatives of the miners gathered to await news while the company worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to hatch a rescue plan.
Family members were relieved that the miners were in radio contact with their rescuers.
"They kept my son and daughter-in-law very well informed," said Drenda Harris, Mr. Harris's grandmother. "I think we were very positive about it."
The miners waited. Oxygen and food weren't a problem. Neither was hurt. Mr. Dulkoski had left his lunch bucket behind, but Mr. Harris shared his water, potato chips and crackers. They didn't touch the shrimp. ("They're really into lunches and lots of water," Ms. Harris said of her grandson and his mom.) Both took turns shining their head lamps.
On the other side of the collapse -- through perhaps 30 feet of rock -- rescue teams were removing the debris and securing the roof. It took about 50 carloads to haul enough rock out to make a 3-by-4-foot hole through which the men could crawl.
They clambered onto a flatbedlike shuttle car usually used to transport coal. Rescuers had jury-rigged a protective canopy of corrugated steel to protect the miners and the man driving the vehicle from falling rock.
"There's always concerns when a roof isn't supported. Travel through an unsupported roof is strictly forbidden in a coal mine," except in such emergency cases, said John Ziants, who supervises mine inspectors for the natural resources department. "You want to do all you can -- all you can -- to make sure the hazards of the roof are negated."
They emerged from the mine around 7:30 p.m.
"I came out of that buggy so fast," Mr. Dulkoski said. "I just told a boy last week this is a very dangerous occupation. He come up to me after I told him that 15 or 10 minutes, he said, 'You're right, Zag, this is a dangerous occupation.' When I got out of this buggy he was the first guy to come up to me and he squeezed me so tight."
Mr. Dulkoski said he went home and hugged his wife. Mr. Harris, who could not be reached, just wanted a shower, according to his grandmother, who spoke with him by phone.
The mine remains closed and under federal investigation. In May it was targeted for an impact inspection by MSHA, which is for mines "that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns ..."
Records show 44 inspections this year, of which 20 resulted in violations.
The mine's operator, Rhino Resource Partners of Lexington, Ky., could not be reached for comment.
Both Mr. Dulkoski and Ms. Harris said safety is paramount at the Hopedale operation.
"They was taking all the proper care," Mr. Dulkoski said. "We [felt] safe over there. They did everything according to the laws."
State and federal investigators have determined that the collapse "was a combination of geology and gravity and was not related to any mining violation," according to the Ohio natural resources department.
First Published October 12, 2012 12:00 am