As a human being, I quite naturally was most happily relieved that Sunday morning last month when word spread that those trapped miners finally were rescued.
As the editor of National Driller, I was delighted that the drilling industry would play such a vital role in a high-profile event that ended in a way that answered so many prayers. That the drama unfolded while a good many of us were at Jubilee only intensified that effect.
But even those ardent feelings of anxiety, relief, elation and pride did little to prepare me for the emotionally uplifting - and draining - experience of talking with someone who was there on the scene.
Hearing Frank Sonnie of Sunrise Drilling Supplies Inc. in Sykesville, Pa., discuss the events of his seemingly endless 62-hour stay at the rescue site was quite moving. There were times during our chat when words failed him during attempts to describe certain parts of the ordeal, but the emotion still came across loud and clear. Some excerpts:
"I was on my way home from New York that Thursday and called the office around noon. That's when I first heard about the situation. They frantically told me to get back right away - one of our customers, Falcon Drilling, had a rig available and was being called to the job. They told us approximately what size bits they were going to need, so my son George loaded up those bits and a lot of other supplies while I made my way back. When I arrived, I just took the suitcase out of my truck and threw it into his and we left.
"When we got to the site, our first job was to drill a dewatering hole to get the water away from the miners. But we had to anxiously wait a long time before the engineers in charge determined the location where they wanted us to drill. We didn't get drilling until after midnight. We finished that hole at about 6:30 Friday morning.
"We were supposed to move on to another location to drill another one but, in the meantime, that bit broke off in the original escape shaft that was being drilled. George and one of the drillers from Falcon went over to see about making a fishing tool to get out the broken bit. Of course, we didn't have anything there on hand, so we contacted Keystone Drill Supply and they rounded up jaws and other parts and brought them right out to the rig, where Falcon's welder showed those guys what he wanted and they welded it for him right there in the corn field - in the rain.
"They got on the bit a couple times and the jaws would grab on, but not enough to be lifted. We called the manufacturer and they arranged for a diagram of the threads to be sent to Star Iron Works, which then made an overshot. Meanwhile, we were still working with the one that was made on site. That process actually helped grind the ridge off the bit and allowed the newly made threaded overshot to finally get over it and get it out. Those guys at Yost Drilling who were working on the first rescue shaft were just great - wonderful, wonderful people.
"The rig we had doing the dewatering hole was about to start on other one when plans changed. We were told to set up to drill another rescue shaft - about 50 feet from the original one Yost was working on. It took until late Friday afternoon to get everything in place to begin. We didn't have any drill collars available, so it was a tough situation with the 24-inch hammer bouncing around. We were down to about 192 feet when the pin broke off the drill rod onto the stabilizer. We called West Virginia for a fishing tool and had to revise it so it would fill up the hole. Meanwhile, Yost's rig on rescue shaft one reached the mine, but they had to wait quite a while before they were allowed to go through the ceiling of the mine. So we kept working on hole two in case something else happened on one. We didn't shut down until the capsule was ready to be sent down rescue shaft one.
"I tell you what - it was a great bunch of people; everyone worked great together. Competition didn't mean a thing; we were all one team. If I were ever stuck in a mine, I'd want the exact same people coming to get me. And the community was just fantastic. There were all kinds of food and drinks being brought in, guys had places to shower. Anything that you needed or wanted, you'd just holler; it was incredible. I've never seen such a team effort in all my life. When those miners came up out of there, it was an unbelievable feeling - a real tear-jerker, especially for a miner's son like me.
"On Monday morning, after I had already loaded up a truck and left, a miner and his wife came down to the scene, and my son was talking with them and had his picture taken with them and some of the other rescuers. And days earlier, when we were preparing the overshot, a man asked my son what it was for and how it worked. My son explained it all to him, satisfying the governor's curiosity.
"Between the technology we have available today and the people we worked with, I always was optimistic. There was a lot of praying going on, but everyone kept their composure. Nobody tried to be a hero or anything; we were called to do a job - get those miners out alive. It was crazy out there, but we just did what we had to do."