Rescuers paddled the rafts with their hands in the dark, flooded mine shaft, letting out air so the inflatable vessels could squeeze through tight passages. From deep in the tunnel came the call: “Can you get me out of here?”
Replied a rescuer: “Since we got in, we will definitely be able to take you out of here.”
And they did, pulling 115 miners to safety Monday, their eighth day trapped in the northern China mine.
Emergency teams were trying to reach 38 others still in the Wangjialing mine as of Monday night.
Even so, the rescue was a rare piece of good news for a coal-mining industry that is notoriously the world’s deadliest. Chinese officials called it “a miracle.” State TV repeatedly broadcast images of cheering and crying rescuers — a cathartic moment for the country observing “grave-sweeping day,” a traditional time for remembering the dead.
“This is probably one of the most amazing rescues in the history of mining anywhere,” said David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government.
Some miners told rescuers of eating tree bark and drinking the filthy water to survive. Some had strapped themselves to the shafts’ walls with their belts — or similarly suspended themselves using their clothes — to avoid drowning while they slept. Some climbed into a mining cart that floated by.
One miner “showed us the sawdust from his pocket. He told me it was hard to chew,” the leader of one of the rescue teams, Chen Yongsheng, told reporters. Chen gave the most detailed, firsthand account of the rescue efforts and his thrill at reaching the miners. When the rafts got stuck in the narrow shaft, Chen said his team floated bags of a nutrient solution down the tunnel to provide sustenance for the trapped miners.
Work crews had been racing to pump out the flooded mine since March 28, when workers digging a tunnel for the new mine accidentally breached an old shaft filled with water. A graphic on state TV showed water inundating the V-shaped tunnel, blocking miners who were on higher ground but deeper inside the shaft from escaping.
Rescuers had no signs the miners were alive until April 2, when tapping sounds from deep underground were heard on a metal pipe lowered into the shaft. They sent milk, glucose and letters of encouragement down the pipe to sustain the miners.
But the high murky waters turned back rescuers Saturday, seemingly until more pumping would clear enough space to use the inflatable rafts. The rescue teams spotted lights from miners’ headlamps swaying in the tunnel.
Then one by one, the first survivors were floated by raft toward the mine entrance early Monday, where medical teams waited by the water’s edge.
“They could answer questions and use simple speech,” said Dr Qin Zhongyang, who checked the men as they were lifted from the rafts. “When I saw the first survivor, I felt so happy.”
Within hours, the trickle turned into a wave of rescues. Dozens of miners emerged, put on stretchers — their bodies wrapped in blankets and their eyes covered to shield them from the light — and carried to waiting ambulances. One miner clapped and reached his blackened hands to grasp those of his rescuers on either side of the stretcher.
“This morning, we wished for a miracle to happen again,” said Liu Dezheng, a spokesman for the rescue operation. “Six hours later, miracles have really happened.”
Liu Qiang, leader of the rescue effort’s medical team, described the rescued miners as weak, dehydrated, malnourished and with unstable vital signs. Though 26 were more seriously ill than the others, Liu said none was in critical condition.
“We’re not ruling out the possibility that in some cases, their conditions could change,” he told reporters.
Families of survivors were elated but given only brief contact with the miners. “He called and managed to say my sister’s nickname, ‘Xiaomi,’ so we know it’s really him and that he’s alive,” said Long Liming, who added he received a call around midday from his rescued brother-in-law Fu Ziyang.
A doctor then took the phone and said Fu had to rest, Long said. “He was trapped underground for so long, so he’s very weak. But we are very relieved to know that he made it out safely.”
For the families of the 38 miners still unaccounted for, the anxious waiting continued.
“I am very happy now that they have been able to rescue people alive. Maybe my father will be next,” said 23-year-old Dong Liangke, watching the rescue work on TV from a hotel room in Jishan county, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the mine.
Dong, his family and those of the other miners have been sequestered in hotels since last week and, they said, kept under watch — a common tactic by mine companies and officials to try to head off angry protests.
Chen said rescue efforts were focused on two or three mine platforms that had yet to be checked and where any survivors were likely to be.
Those miners in the lower levels were the most vulnerable, said Feickert, the mine safety expert. “Just think of a tall building, people on different floors, if that suddenly filled up with water,” he said.
Unlike many of the small, private mines that tend to have the worst safety, the Wangjialing mine is a large venture, half-owned by the state’s China National Coal Group Corp., the country’s second largest coal mining company.
A new mine, Wangjialing had yet to be brought into service when the accident occurred. The State Administration of Work Safety, in a preliminary investigation, found that the mine’s managers ignored water leaks, keeping workers in the shaft when operations should have been suspended.
“The real issue for the government is to learn the lessons from this and make sure the coal companies don’t make the same mistakes,” Feickert said. “The fundamental issue is, the miners should never have been put in this situation in the first place.”