Navy Medicine in Support of Civilian Authorities

In the past, I’ve published a couple of articles on the Navy’s support to civilian medical authorities during the 1918 influenza epidemic, when civil facilities and personnel were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sick people who needed care. In another article , I added a “what of today” piece in which I discussed civil-military lessons learned from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and  then-current directives directing or permitting military installations and their personnel to support civil authorities in planning and responding to medical and natural disasters. I also pointed out that such arrangements, at the time, were based pretty much on “handshake” agreements between local military bases and surrounding civilian health and disaster planning agencies.

Late last week, Captain James Bloom, MC, USN (Ret), who regularly emails short naval historical vignettes under the rubric “Today in Naval History”, posted this piece on a Navy diving medicine response, to wit (with Captain Bloom’s permission):

28 JULY 2002


The evening of 24 July 2002 was unremarkable for 18 miners working the Quecreek deep shaft coal mine near Somerset, Pennsylvania; that is until they accidentally broke through a thin wall separating them from the nearby Saxon mine. The abandoned, flooded Saxon shaft was errantly shown on maps to be several thousand feet away, but in seconds 150 million gallons water poured into the Quecreek shaft. Nine miners scurried to safety; nine more struggled to reach the highest point within their subterranean tomb. Here the rising water compressed the residual air into a bubble just large enough to keep the nine from drowning. Within hours a six-inch pipe reached the miners through which heated, pressurized air was pumped to hold the chilly, rising water at bay.

Breathing pressurized air at their position 240 feet below the surface made the miners effectively divers, equivalent to an air-saturation dive 40 feet below the sea. Experience with even shallow water marine rescues had taught that the sudden decompression of rescue was likely to result in death or serious injury from “the bends.” The Navy was called and within hours CAPT Dale Molé from the Bureau of Medicine and CAPT Henry Schwartz from Naval Sea Systems Command joined emergency physician LCDR Nick Colovos and 60 Navy personnel from eight commands at the scene. Recompression chambers were quickly flown in–nine multi-place chambers and five transportable “Hyperlite” chambers. Set up in a nearby barn, the assemblage represented the first time so much recompression capability had been assembled in one location.

A special drilling rig had to be transported from West Virginia to sink a 32″ rescue shaft. It would be used to lower a cylindrical basket through which the nine could be raised one-by-one. A steel cap, the “iron maiden,” was built over the site to maintain air pressure in the shaft while the rescue proceeded. At the mine entrance over a mile away high-volume pumps strained to drain as much water as possible from the flooded mine. This paced removal of water proved very helpful as it lowered the pressure in the miner’s air bubble about one foot of seawater each hour–the perfect rate for decompression. But nothing more had been heard from the miners. For two torturous days Navy personnel worked, sympathized with families, and rehearsed their rescue scenarios.

Finally at 2215 on the 27th the rescue shaft reached the trapped miners. Video equipment borrowed from the Navy-Marine Corps News crew and attached to the first rescue basket recorded all nine alive! CAPT Schwartz escorted the first rescued miner to a nearby trauma center, where one of the recompression chambers proved necessary and helpful. By 0245 all nine had been rescued.

Watch for more “Today in Naval History” 1 AUG 19

CAPT James Bloom, Ret.
Molè, Dale, “Steaming to Assist at the Quecreek Mine Disaster.” Navy Medicine, Vol 93 (5), September/October 2002, pp. 18-29.

Oral History, CAPT Dale Molè, MC/USN, August 2002.

ADDITIONAL NOTES: This rescue was the first in the 20-year experience of Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety representative Jeffrey Stancheck in which all the trapped miners were rescued safely. The assistance of the US Navy proved invaluable. Indeed, when the first miner was brought to the surface it quickly be came apparent that some visual screening would be necessary to preserve the privacy of the miners being transported from the shaft opening to the decontamination station. Initially Navy personnel on the scene formed a 70-foot “human shield” until within 15 minutes the SeaBees had constructed a 12′ barrier of wood and “cumshawed” tarpaulins.

Though we usually associate “the bends” with diving activities, the disease was originally described in the 19th century in underground constructions workers building the massive caissons that support the Brooklyn Bridge. It was originally called “caisson’s disease.”

Ironically the site of this Quecreek mine disaster and miraculous rescue is only 15 miles from the crash site of the September 11th, 2001, highjacked United Airlines Flight 93.

I think this is a terrific example of the special expertise the Navy and the other military medical services can bring to bear in emergencies. (I also wrote a short piece on the Army’s medical response to the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 here.)

(You can subscribe to Captain Bloom’s vignettes by emailing him at; put Subscribe to “Today in Naval History” in your subject line.)

©2019 Thomas L Snyder

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