WASHINGTON, DC–Hopes of finding more survivors of Monday's Senate Mine disaster are fading, as a second full day of rescue efforts proved futile Wednesday.
In all, 57 legislators remain buried deep within the Senate Mine, the southern shaft of which collapsed without warning at 7:57 a.m. Monday. Rescue workers say the likelihood of finding survivors is slim.
"The area where the senators were digging is one of the narrowest in the entire mine," said Tom Asheton of the Red Cross. "We know for sure that the passageways on both sides of the corridor were sealed off in the initial blast, so the senators probably ran out of oxygen sometime yesterday afternoon. We'll give it another go first thing tomorrow morning, but at this point, it doesn't look good. Lord help those brave lawmakers."
Asheton then called upon all Americans to pray for the senators.
At 7 a.m. Monday, as they do every week, the nation's 100 senators donned their lantern helmets, took up shovels, and descended the main shaft by rope elevator to excavate the rich seam of coal recently discovered in the mine's Great Southern Drift. Congressional Mine Record transcripts of intercom communications indicate that operations were proceeding smoothly, with drill operators encountering no more than the normal resistance from rocky occlusions, when a sudden rumbling was heard.
"From way down the shaft, I could hear [Sen.] Judd [Gregg (R-NH)] shouting, 'The pilings! The pilings!'" said senate majority foreman Trent Lott (R-MS), whose leg was badly contused by falling mine tailings and who had to be restrained by aides from reentering the mine to save his colleagues. "Then there was this incredible roar, and all the lamps blew out. I remember thinking, 'Please, God, no: There's still so much important legislation to pass–and coal to dig.'"
At 8:08 a.m., the mine whistle on the Capitol dome sounded the emergency warning. Within minutes, senators' loved ones began assembling at the mine's entrance to watch rescuers going about their grim work. One after another, the grimy, blue-suited bodies of senators were dragged from the mine.
"These are brave men," said Lott, his face still blackened with soot. "Despite our ongoing bipartisan struggles, with the Democrats arguing for shorter hours down-shaft and Republicans supporting less restrictive mining regulations, there has been nothing but brotherhood today."
The cause of the mine's collapse remains unknown. No smoke or heat has been detected emanating from the shaft, ruling out the possibility that a hammer-drill struck sparks and ignited the abundant coal dust that fills the senatorial chambers.
Senators who had been working in the mine's central shaft say oxygen levels were normal. They also noted that congressional pages positioned in the mine to monitor air quality were chatting happily just seconds before the disaster. Survivors' accounts seem to point to a straightforward collapse, which, experts note, is an ever-present danger when legislators excavate in the wet rock near the Potomac.
"Of all the industrial ventures run by the federal government, the coal-mining operations of the legislative branch have always had the worst safety record," said Cliff Stephney, president of the United Senatorial Mine Workers of America. "Just last year, we almost lost the entire Senate Armed Services Committee when the hay bales they feed the cart-horses 'down the hole' somehow caught fire."
Stephney noted that Supreme Court & Southern Railroad brakemen, statistically the second most dangerous job in American government, had a 17 percent better chance of seeing retirement without injury.
Unsafe as congressional mining may be, few other options are available to unskilled elected officials.
"Every year, we say we're going to pass laws that make our jobs safer," said senator and rock hog Mitch "Mule" McConnell (R-KY), who has the distinction of surviving both Monday's collapse and the infamous Library of Congress Foundry Explosion of 1999. "But when a man gets down to voting, he remembers how much he owes to the Capitol store, and that's usually the end of that. I mean, times being what they are, a senator can't really afford to just cash out and risk starving his family."
"Boss Thurmond always says there are tons of immigrants right off the boat who aren't afraid to serve a six-year term in elected office hauling out the coal," said Sen. Russell "Rusty" Feingold (D-WI). "I hate it like poison, but as soon as we get the slag out of that drift, I know I'm back to the shaft again."
In a nationally televised address Tuesday, President Bush paid tribute to the lost senators.
"We pray for the souls of each of these brave men, and we humbly thank them for toiling to provide our nation with badly needed laws and coal," Bush said. "We are with their families in their time of grief and promise a full congressional investigation just as soon as the mine–and Congress itself–can be reconstructed."