On Tuesday, March 1, 1977, at approximately 11:50 a.m., an inrush of water occurred in the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway section of the Porter Tunnel Mine, Kocher Coal Company, causing the death of nine miners, injuries to three and entrapment of one who was eventually rescued. Six miners in the effected section escaped safely via the return air emergency escapeway leading to the surface. The miners working in other sections of the mine, 65 in all, traveled both the intake and return air escapeways leading to the surface.
The inrushing water entered the mine through a breach in the mine floor at the low side rib in the gangway between No. 18 chute and the face of the gangway. The source of the water was abandoned mine workings adjacent to the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway section of Porter Tunnel Mine. These abandoned workings reportedly were developed in the late 1930's and abandoned in the early 1940's and were never completely surveyed nor accurately shown on any mine maps. Some of these abandoned workings were in the Skidmore vein beneath the advancing West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway, and the water that had accumulated in the abandoned workings broke through the floor of the advancing gangway.
During the period from approximately 1928 through 1943, the area of land near the Porter Tunnel was mined for anthracite by bootleg operations. The term "bootlegger" generally has been used in this context to refer to an independent coal mining operation which had no legal right to extract coal from a particular tract of land, had no lease, and was not paying royalties. In approximately 1944, the Western Anthracite Company leased the land which now includes the Porter Tunnel Mine and adjacent property. Western Anthracite attempted to close down this land to bootleg operators, including the Bush Old Bootleg Slope Mine. Other bootleg operations in this immediate area were known as Miller Old Bootleg Slope Mine and Weaver Old Bootleg Slope Mine.
The Porter Tunnel Mine was owned and operated by the Reading Coal Company from approximately 1946 until 1953. The mine was closed due to economic reasons and remained inactive until 1968, at which time the Leon E. Kocher Coal Company obtained the Porter Tunnel Mine under a lease-purchase agreement. The land leased from Reading apparently included the three bootleg mines referred to above.
The Porter Tunnel Mine is located three miles east of Tower City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, one quarter mile south of Route 209.
A total of 145 miners were employed at the mine; 125 underground and 20 on the surface. The mine
was operated two shifts a day, five days a week, and reportedly produced an average of 700 tons of anthracite daily. Reportedly, production during 1976 was 198,752 tons. The mine is opened by a rock tunnel, driven in a northerly direction through folded strata into the Big Lick Mountain for a distance of about 4,300 feet, and by several other openings used for return airways and escapeways. The tunnel, as it penetrates the mountain, intersects nine mixable coal veins dipping in northerly and southerly directions. These veins vary in thickness from 5 to 25 feet.
Inundation of March 1, 1977
Witnesses' Accounts of Inundation
Bruce Smith was working in the vicinity of No. 12 chute. He stated that he felt a gush of air while he
was sitting on the No.2 chain conveyor motor at No. 12 chute in the gangway. He looked around and saw water coming out the gangway and saw the conveyor moving out. He ran up chute No. 11 and out the monkey airway to the return air escapeway, seeing no one along the way. When he reached the surface, he got a ride from the stripping foreman in his pickup truck to the mine office and told John Messaros, chief clerk, what happened.
Ernest Morgan was working in the vicinity of No. 13 chute. He stated that he and John Morgan had
been performing their normal duties in the monkey airway at No. 12 chute until sometime just prior to the inundation. They had completed the work at No. 12 chute and were at No. 13. Suddenly, there was a gust of wind, and they knew something unusual was happening. Ernest Morgan looked toward the face of the airway and saw a wall of water coming out. Both men started to run from No. 13 to No. 12 chute and scrambled up No. 12 breast, trying to stay ahead of the water. Ernest Morgan ingested mine water, causing him to be hospitalized.
Ronald Adley, who was entrapped until March 6, 1977, said that they had fired a "popper" (small explosive charge) in the top coal to blow down some overhang. He and the other two men working in No. 17 chute waited in the chute for quite awhile for the smoke to clear. After waiting, they started to go to the face of the slant (being driven from No. 17 to No. 15 breast), but smoke was still thick so they again decided to wait. Suddenly, Adley felt some wind coming from the monkey airway. It seemed at first to come in broken waves, but soon there was a terrific wind and then he saw the water rushing in from the monkey airway.
Adley shouted to Ralph Renninger and Donald Shoffler to jump to the high rib. He then jumped toward the high rib; however, he was caught in the inrushing water and was washed toward the face. He held his breath as long as possible and was able to survive until the water receded. During this period he lost his cap lamp and was unable to find it in the debris; however, he saw a light below which turned out to be the cap lamp of a co-worker. He took the light and obtained tools to help dig his way out to the monkey airway. Adley thought that he had reached the airway, but due to its being blocked, he could not find a way out. About this same time, coal from the high side rib in the slant started falling. Consequently, Adley returned to the face of the slant breast, knowing that he would have to wait to be rescued.
Escape Route of Miners
The nine miners escaped from the flooded section through the designated return air escapeway to the surface.
After the water had receded, the miners from the area of the West North Dip sections traveled to the surface through the main tunnel.
Some of the miners from the East North and South Dip sections off No. 20 tunnel traveled through the emergency escapeway in return air on the East South Dip, and others traveled out the main tunnel to the surface. Miners from the East Top Split Mammoth South Dip gangway off the main tunnel traveled through the return airway to the surface.
Activities of Supervisory Personnel When Inundation Occurred
The general mine foreman, Samuel Klinger, was attending a monthly mine rescue meeting at the office of Hegins Mining Company, located approximately 14 miles from the Porter Tunnel Mine. He was notified by telephone that something was wrong at the nine, and immediately returned to the mine property.
Samuel Klinger became aware that an inundation lad occurred when Bruce Smith, a laborer from the affected section, escaped to the surface by way of the return air escapeway on the east side of the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway section.
At approximately 12:30 p.m., Samuel Klinger attempted to walk in the main tunnel, but could not do so because water flowing from the tunnel was over the top of his boots. He then traveled approximately 5.5 miles from the main office to the return air escapeway to enter the mine and was the first person to reach he effected area, where he found three injured persons and assisted them to the surface.
Rescue and Recovery Operations
The inundation made most parts of the gangway and monkey airway impassable due to water and debris. Most of the coal pillar at the counter chute had been washed out, thus cutting off the most direct escape route to the main tunnel.
The first persons entering the main tunnel following the inundation recovered the body of Gary Lee Ginger. The body was located in the main tunnel approximately 1,060 feet outby the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway counter chute and was removed to the surface at about 2:30 p.m. on March 1, 1977.
Relatives of the trapped miners and the news media "ere briefed on a regular schedule relative to the progress of the rescue and recovery operations. All efforts were made to ensure that these briefings were actual and timely. In most instances, these briefings were held by representatives of MESA, the State and Kocher Coal Company.
A body, later identified as Philip Sabatino, a gangway face miner, was sighted by mine workers at about 12:50 a.m. on March 2, 1977, in the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway near No.4 chute. A rescue team entered the mine at approximately 5 a.m. This team transported the body to the surface, traveling the difficult up-and-down, vein-to-vein, rock hole-to-rock hole route to the main tunnel and from there to the surface, arriving at approximately 2:20 p.m. on March 2, 1977.
During the morning of March 2, 1977, a review of maps of the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway section indicated that a slant was being driven up-pitch off No. 17 breast toward No. 15 breast. All access to the slant was completely blocked by debris. Because of the possibility of survivors in the high area of the No. 17 slant breast, a decision was made to drill an exploratory hole from No. 15 breast in the coal to No. 17 slant breast.
While awaiting the drill steels, a "rapping" was heard at the west rib of the No. 15 breast. The crew determined that the "rapping" was coming from the slant off No. 17 breast and that there was a miner or miners entrapped.
When the drill steels arrived, a 1¾-inch diameter hole, about 48 feet in length, was drilled through to the slant breast. At that time, voice contact was made with a miner in the slant, who identified himself as Ronald Adley. Adley informed the rescue crew that he was all right and that there were two other miners in the slant breast below him; however, he was not certain of their condition. Subsequently, there was a second 1¾-inch diameter hole drilled through the pillar. A 1-inch plastic pipe was then installed in this hole at 9:55 p.m., March 2, 1977. Adley was given orange juice through the pipe. A third 1¾-inch diameter hole was drilled through, and this third hole was utilized to communicate with Adley, while the first drill hole was being enlarged to 4 inches in diameter.
As rescue workers advanced toward Adley, progress became increasingly difficult.
As the rescue tunnel neared the slant where Adley was entrapped, a coning effect developed, resulting in an opening too small to permit him to crawl out. Because of this coning effect, it was determined that it would be easier to enlarge the opening from the inby end, since Adley stated that he was in good physical condition. Consequently, at 7:55 a.m. on March 6, 1977, a chipping hammer was passed through to Adley, who enlarged the hole from his location. At approximately 8:05 a.m. on March 6, 1977, the tunnel was sufficiently enlarged to allow Adley to escape. Adley walked to the main tunnel level with his rescuers and was transported to the surface. An awaiting ambulance transported him to the Pottsville Hospital.
At approximately 9:30 a.m. on March 6, 1977, a recovery team recovered the body of Ralph Renninger and sighted the body of Donald Schoffler.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. on March 6, 1977, Schoffler's body was recovered 68 feet from the face. At approximately 6:58 p.m., Schoffler's body was transported to the main tunnel. Both bodies were then transported to the surface, arriving at 7:30 p.m. on March 6, 1977.
Rescue and recovery activities in the main tunnel and in the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway were begun when the water receded sufficiently to permit entry. These rescue and recovery activities were not interrupted during the time that the rescue hole for Adley was being driven.
When recovery work reached a point approximately midway between No. 18 chute and the face of the gangway, a body was sighted in loose coal above the gangway. An opening was made through lagging from the gangway, and as the loose material ran through this opening, the bodies of three of the victims came through the hole. These bodies were identified at about 8:20 p.m. on March 28, 1977, as John Moyer and Dennis Morgan, monkey airway face workers, and Ronald Herb, gangway face workman. The three bodies were transported to the surface, arriving at 10:57 p.m. on March 28, 1977.
Additional coal was drawn from this opening, and at 12:35 a.m. on March 30, 1977, the bodies of the last two victims, Mark Kroh, gangway face miner, and Timothy Grose, monkey airway face miner, were recovered.
MESA investigators concluded that:
- Accurate information concerning the extent of the workings in the adjacent Bush Old Bootleg Slope Mine was not readily available to management of Porter Tunnel Mine. Mine management did, however, have sufficient information concerning the approximate location of the old workings to initiate a program in the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway section. This program required the drilling of three-way test holes in the working faces and included the drilling of 26-foot test holes in the low side rib of the advancing gangway, to probe for impounded water below the gangway.
- Testimony by miners employed by Porter Tunnel Mine, at the public hearings held at Tower City on June 7, 8 and 9, 1977, disclosed serious difficulties in drilling the 26-foot test holes in the low side rib. Notwithstanding evidence that a water hazard may exist, and rather than discontinue development of the section until some other methods of detecting the precise location of abandoned workings could be implemented, mine management discontinued full enforcement of its existing drilling program. Accordingly, prior to and at the time the water broke through the floor into the face area, miners working at the face were not drilling the 26-foot test holes in the low side rib.
- The mine map reviewed by MESA inspectors at the mine during inspections in September, November, and December 1976, and February 1977, was inaccurate. It did not show all of the known abandoned adjacent mine workings of the Miller, Bush, or Weaver Old Bootleg Slope Mines. Of particular significance was that the map did not indicate the abandoned adjacent workings of the Bush Old Bootleg Slope Mine, suspected by management to be located ahead of and below the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway section.
- The probe hole drilling conducted in the West Skidmore South Dip gangway, as part of the investigation into the cause of the inundation, provided some evidence as to the location of the abandoned adjacent workings in relation to the active working section. However, the forces created by the inrush of water from the abandoned mine workings eroded the coal pillar separating the gangway from the abandoned mine to the extent that the exact dimensions of this coal pillar could not be definitely determined until the abandoned mine was penetrated sufficiently to permit an engineering survey of the area.
- Gary Lee Ginger
- Mark Groh
- Timothy Grose
- Ronald Herb
- Dennis Morgan
- John Moyer
- Ralph Renninger
- Philip Sabatino
- Donald Schoffler