Joe Sbaffoni reflects on the operation that saved the Quecreek miners 20 years ago

SOMERSET COUNTY, Pa. — Former Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker called him the “brains” behind the rescue at Quecreek mine 20 years ago.

Joe Sbaffoni was one of a handful of experts who devised a risky plan to try to save the nine miners trapped more than 20 stories below the surface of Somerset county.

It had never been done before and frankly no one, not even Sbaffoni, knew if it would work.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle, who covered the mine rescue, sat down with Sbaffoni, who retired after a 30-year career with the state agency that oversees mining in Pennsylvania.

“There is all the mine rescue team members,” said Sbaffoni.

On this July 2022 day, Sbaffoni is in Waynesburg, helping out at the annual mine rescue contest. Even though he retired seven years ago, mining is in his blood.

“My grandfather came from Italy at the turn of the century and went to work in the mines. My dad went to 8th grade and worked in the mines. Me and my brother. That’s all we’ve ever done,” Sbaffoni told Earle.

In 2015, he retired after 15 years as a miner, and 30 years with the state, last serving as the director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

“You hope you never have to use the rescue teams but you better be ready in case you get the call,” said Sbaffoni.

20 years ago, Sbaffoni got that call he will never forget. Nine miners missing after digging into a flooded mine that wasn’t on their mining map.

“I don’t think a whole lot of people thought we had a chance to save them, a whole lot of people even officials,” said Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni, who was living in Fayette county at the time, raced to the scene in Somerset county, about an hour drive.

He immediately had crews drill an air shaft into the mine, where they believed the men had retreated.

When the drill broke through the mine Thursday morning, Sbaffoni and the drillers heard confirmation someone was down there.

“I says go ahead put it down on the bottom pick it up one foot, and shut everything off. when he did that you could hear them beating on the steel so we knew somebody was alive down there,” said Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni made the decision to begin pumping compressed air into the mine, a move Sbaffoni says likely saved their lives.

“That was the first time that we saved them. We give them that air and they said they were they were gagging because the bad air was coming out the old mine with CO2,” said Sbaffoni.

As huge pumps worked around the clock pumping water out of the mine, Sbaffoni and the others devised a risky plan to create an air pocket for the miners to survive, and at the same time they hoped it would keep the water from rising.

Sbaffoni would later find out how desperate the situation became.

“They put a canvas up, wrote their notes to their loved ones, and put them in a bucket. They thought they were going to drown,” said Sbaffoni.

“Did the air pocket keep the water at bay?” asked Earle.

“Right there it never moved,” responded an elated Sbaffoni.

“Most of the critical decision were made that night. We knew we had to drill a rescue hole and we had to pump water,” said Sbaffoni.

“And this is stuff that had never been done before?” asked Earle.

“Well, that situation never occurred for it to be tried,” answered Sbaffoni.

“So this is just a new theory that you’re hoping and praying works?” asked Earle.

Crews then began drilling a larger hole nearby, a 26 inch rescue shaft. The plan was to lower a rescue cage 240 feet below the surface through to eventually lift the miners to safety. It was a risky plan that had never been tried before.

There were setbacks. The drill bit broke, and a special piece of equipment was flown in by helicopter to retrieve it. In the meantime, crews started drilling a second rescue shaft just in case they couldn’t resume drilling in the first shaft.

The ultimately retrieved the broke bit and using a big that was hauled in from West Virginia became drilling in the first shaft again.

The second shaft experienced trouble as well, when that drill broke.

But the first one was back on track.

Finally, nearly three days after their first and only contact with the miners, drillers broke through roof of the Quecreek mine, hoping the miners were still alive. Crews shut down all of the heavy equipment, including the compressor that had been pumping fresh air into the mine. They lowered a small radio down into the shaft and waited.

The crew member who was trying to reach the miners finally did. His thumb then shot up nine times, confirmation that all nine were alive.

“After we found out all nine were alive we went to where the families where and announced that and I mean, and then went to the media center and that’s when the Governor come out and said all nine are alive,” said Sbaffoni.

“That’s the iconic image of that day,” said Earle.

“You could have heard a pin drop in that media room. There was media from all over the world, the main networks and a lot of them were in tears,” said Sbaffoni.

“I was there,” said Earle, who covered the rescue for Channel 11.

After the rescue at Quecreek, Sbaffoni was promoted to the state director of deep mine safety.

He was instrumental in pushing new regulations to protect miners, including requiring updated maps and a more stringent permitting process.

“A lot of good come out of Quecreek, not only in Pennsylvania, but across the country in the mining industry,” said Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni told Earle that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about those four sleepless days he spent in Somerset County 20 years ago.

“Everything we did turned out to be the right thing, and it gave those nine miners a second chance at life, got them back to their families,” said Sbaffoni.

“Where does this rank in your professional career in terms of accomplishments?” asked Earle.

“Oh, it’s number one,” said Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni is retired and lives on a lake. He plays golf and spends time with his family. He still gives presentations about the rescue.

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