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On January 18, the Montanuniversitaet Leoben SPE Student Chapter had the honor of welcoming Mr. Leopold Abraham at the HS DPE. He spoke to 16 students of geosciences, petroleum and mining engineering about how he was one of the leading persons in the rescue after mining tragedy of Lassing, Styria.
Mr Abraham, who grew up in the heart of Austrian oil production, joined OMV as an apprentice in 1968, and as a metal worker he worked his way through the various branches of OMV. Besides his job at OMV, Mr Abraham also joined ProTerra, a geothermal company, as manager.
One day in July 1998, when sitting in the office, he told in his talk, his phone rang – and he was asked whether he could go to Lassing, where miner Georg Hainzl had been trapped in a tunnel of the local talc mine after water had entered. Leopold Abraham accepted the challenge. As he and his crew soon found out, there were several problems they had to deal with during the rescue:
OMV provided workover rigs in order to drill wells for the missing miner. However, they could not provide the Weight on Bit required for the conductor pipe, so a rig for drilling shallow water wells had to be brought in from Germany. Once the conductor was set and cemented, the OMV workover crews started drilling, under the supervision of their leader Mr Abraham, and Prof. Hofstätter as a directional driller (at that time he was still with RAG). Additionally, new drill bits had to be brought on site as quickly as possible. To achieve that, they were transported by helicopters from Celle to Lassing, as that was by far the quickest possible way.
That decision not to drill the complete hole (the miner was assumed to be at a depth of only 80m) with the German rig had to be made because of its incapability of maintaining a vertical direction in the faulted rock – it was simply prone to follow faults instead. In addition to huge time pressure – Hainzl had been in the tunnel without sufficient food and water – bystanders became an increasing problem: International media had started to show interest and reported, causing “disaster tourists” to arrive in busses, making the work of the volunteers and the drilling crews even more difficult. To deal with that, the Austrian military was ordered on site to keep bystanders in a safe distance.
Finally, ten days after the mining disaster started to run its course, the drilling crew found Georg Hainzl, cold, hungry and dehydrated, but in “surprisingly good condition” given that he had spent 10 days trapped subsurface with little food and water, at a temperature of only little above the freezing point. He was rescued with a decompression chamber that had been constructed in a rush while the crews were drilling for Hainzl already. This quickly became known as the “Miracle of Lassing”.
However, ten other miners had entered the mine soon after the first mudslide had occurred in a first attempt to rescue their missing colleague. During their search, another mudslide occurred, and they were also buried under mud and rock. That meant that the work for the rescue team and hundreds of volunteers could not stop when Hainzl was rescued. The search went on for nearly another 4 weeks, with the chances to find any more survivors becoming less with every second, and subsequently, the search was called off in the middle of August 1998.
To conclude the talk, the floor was open for some questions:
- How could it be prevented that the drilling mud would flow into the tunnel where Georg Hainzl was trapped?
It became clear to the drilling crew quickly that the sound of the drill string changes when it approaches a cavern, so the circulation rate was reduced and finally completely stopped prior to hitting through the roof of a cavern. Additionally, as much drilling fluid as possible was swabbed out of the hole prior to drilling into the cavern.
- What were the consequences drawn after the disaster?
The disaster had legal consequences for some of the responsible persons who lived at the time of the trial. Moreover, the mining authorities of Austria were changed, and a new mineral resources law (“MinRoG”) was made.
- Would the rescue have been faster if the charts were more accurate?
Most probably more accurate chart material would have helped the rescue teams to get to Georg Hainzl faster. This is, however, not proven – and the court had not found the responsible cartographer guilty. But the charts had turned out to be incorrect during the rescue.
In order not to conclude with such a horrible topic, Mr Abraham also encouraged us to pursue our current careers in petroleum, mining or geology. He said that our university is a truly unique one, and studying here in Leoben is the key to very satisfying and interesting careers for anyone who is willing to commit to it.
We want to express our gratitude to Mr Leopold Abraham for his visit in Leoben, and for his very interesting, but also very tragic talk.