A 6-inch borehole – the first such attempt in a mining rescue attempt anywhere in the world
From the Standard Speaker – Hazleton, PA, USA
By Ed Conrad
August 16, 2007
It was known as the Sheppton Mine Disaster of August 1963, when two anthracite miners – David Fellin, then 58, and Henry “Hank” Throne, 28 – were trapped and given up for dead, then dramatically rescued after being buried 14 days underground.
Boreholes were drilled into the depths of the mine near Sheppton in an attempt to contact the miners if indeed they were still alive.
In the case of Fellin and Throne, a borehole miraculously reached them and the news that two of them were still alive after five days underground sent shivers to people around the world.
The unfortunate part – not known during the initial contact – was that Lou Bova, 54, was not with Fellin and Throne.
All three had been some 330 feet below ground when the cave-in occurred and sought shelter in the chamber. However, Bova thought he saw a safer place and ran toward it just as the roof of the mine collapsed.
So he was not with Fellin and Throne, now both deceased, when the borehole reached them, and Bova’s body was never recovered.
The borehole was drilled at the insistence of Fellin’s brother, Joe, after attempts to rescue the miners had met with frustration for the first few days.
Rescue crews were unable to penetrate the shaft – the only entrance or exit to the mine – because of the threat of additional cave-ins as well as the presence of poisonous carbon dioxide.
When all hope seemed gone, Joe Fellin pleaded with officials of the local district of the United Mine Workers, based in Hazleton, that the buried miners might be located through a borehole.
The UMW convinced state mining officials to give it a try, and they reluctantly agreed.
The rest is mining history
A 6-inch borehole – the first such attempt in a mining rescue attempt anywhere in the world – miraculously penetrated the chamber where Fellin and Throne thought they were waiting to die.
It drilled through the roof of the cramped enclosure, where they had sought refuge after the cave-in on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 13.
“When the drill came through, it almost hit me on the head,” Fellin said years later.
Having been a miner at least 44 years before the cave-in, Fellin knew there was only one way into and out of the mine and tons and tons of rock, coal and dirt blocked it.
However, when the six-inch borehole reached Fellin and Throne, a much larger borehole – 17½ inches in diameter – was drilled right over it in an effort to possibly pull the miners to the surface.
People from all corners of the globe were intrigued by the fact that the men were still alive and watched in awe as the rescue operation continued with the drilling of the larger borehole.
It indeed was the biggest international story in the entire history of Hazleton or the Standard-Speaker to that time.
The Los Angeles Times published a front-page story bearing the banner headline, ”MINE MIRACLE.”
The dramatic rescue effort, which lasted more than a week, was front-page news in virtually every newspaper in the free world.
Reporters, columnists and photographers from far and wide – England, Japan and Germany, among many other countries – were dispatched to the mine site to cover the event.
As virtually all hope seemed lost, rescuers took a gamble.
It was decided, as a last-ditch effort to satisfy the families of the miners, to drill a 6-inch-wide borehole in an attempt to reach the miners.
The hole took much of Aug. 17 and all of Aug. 18 to drill, but around 11 p.m. on Aug. 18, a hole had been drilled to the proper depth.
And just before midnight, a light and a microphone were lowered into the earth in an effort to establish contact with one or more of the miners.
A member of the rescue crew cupped his mouth over the bore hole, got as close as he could to the ground and yelled: “Look for the light!”
He thought he had detected a voice, so he stood up and waved both arms, demanding total silence from the rescue workers and a crowd of onlookers.
Once again he got on all fours and again hollered, “Look for the light Look for the light!” Then cupped his ear over the borehole and listened for a sound from below.
Suddenly, he leaped to his feet and screamed “They’re alive! I hear them! They’re alive!”
Within minutes, the astounding news spread like wildfire around the world.
What followed was the patient drilling of larger boreholes, then the drilling of a 17½-inch borehole was drilled by equipment loaned by one of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes’ companies in Texas.
People worldwide waited for a happy ending – and it finally came in the wee hours of Tuesday, Aug. 27, 1963.
First Throne, then Fellin were pulled to the surface wearing parachute harnesses and football helmets.