A near-disaster saved the soul, if not the coal, of 'America's County'

John Unger (right), one of nine miners rescued from the Quecreek mine in 2002, receives a hug from Linda Buterbaugh of Commodore as her friend Rose Ann Buterbaugh looks on during the Quecreek Community Celebration Day Saturday.

Somerset County’s strata run deeper than coal and far higher than the eye can see, beyond geology, theology, or any other -ologies that help people put their world in order.

An overlook near Shanksville juts out 30 feet above a sweeping view of tall grass. At dusk on Saturday, the landscape was mostly empty except for swallows chasing moths and a few whitetail deer that melded with the golden light when they went still.

Far above, on a September morning 16 years ago, passengers tried to wrest control of United Flight 93 from terrorists. Now, a boulder beyond the grass marks where the plane crashed, the whole of it solemn and somehow breathtaking.

Camera icon Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer
A photo of Thomas E. Burnett Jr, a passenger aboard Flight 93,  at the old temporary memorial at the crash site in Shanksville, Pa.

In the same setting sun, 14 miles to the west, a crowd of a hundred or so gathered on a postcard-perfect farm to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Quecreek Mine Rescue, when nine coal miners spent 77 hours trapped 240 feet below the earth.

That rescue, televised nonstop around the globe from July 24 to 28 in 2002, helped “America’s County” make sense of the world again after 9/11.

“We needed this to happen,” said Kathy Bailey, 70, whose younger brother escaped the mine. “Spiritually, we were down, all of us, and what happened at this farm lifted us all up.”

Camera icon JOHN BEALE / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Andrea Policicchio looks out from the window of her restaurant in Boswell, Pa. Policicchio is a friend of Bob Pugh Jr., one of the nine miners rescued from Quecreek Mine.

Some of the nine miners visit the rescue site and museum at Dormel Farms. Some don’t. Most are retired, and almost none went back into the mines, turning to other industries like wind energy or companies that make drill bits.

On Saturday, parents who knew the faces pointed them out to children. Others guessed their way to it.

“Are you one of the miners?” an Amish woman seeking an autograph asked a reporter.

Somerset can’t thank the passengers who fought back on Flight 93, so the miners get hugs and tears on their shoulders.

Camera icon Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette
John Unger speaks with friends Rose Ann Buterbaugh of Cherry Tree and Linda Buterbaugh during the Quecreek Community Celebration Day.

“We’re just everyday guys,” John Unger, 67,  told a woman who clutched his hand Saturday on the farm. “I’m just a guy that went to work one day and got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The woman cried, and they posed for a photo.

Church steeples are as common as barns in this 1,000-square mile county, just under 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, but the tie that binds it all together is bituminous coal, mined beneath cornfields and pews since the 1800s. Flight 93 crashed on a former strip mine.

Just about everyone in Somerset County has a loved one who worked underground at one time, and like the rest of the country, they’ve seen that livelihood fade. Nationwide, the coal industry lost 37, 000 mining jobs just from 2012 to 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Somerset County, 2,723 residents made a living from bituminous coal in 1955; by last year, their ranks had dwindled to 381, And next year, Quecreek mine will close, when the last of its treasure is extracted.

The top employers in Somerset County now are the state and county governments and a ski resort, followed by school districts, pharmacies, and medical centers. The county is home to two state prisons, both built in the 1990s, The unemployment rate, as of May 2017, was 5.9 percent, higher than Bedford County to the east but lower than Fayette to the west and Cambria to the north. The population peaked in 1940 at nearly 85,000, and has been dropping since 2000, to its current 77,742 residents.

Somerset County got a fillip in June when President Trump touted the opening of Corsa Coal’s new Acosta mine, also just a few miles from the farm and the Flight 93 Memorial. It “signals a new chapter in America’s long, proud coal mining tradition,” he said.

Officials don’t dismiss the 100 jobs the Acosta mine will create.

“It’s a psychological boost for the county. At least people think we’re going forward and not backward,” County Commissioner John Vatavuk said last week.

Trump received 75 percent of the vote in Somerset County, and billboards, some handmade, remain in the corn. But the miners aren’t naïve. They don’t all praise Trump. They see wind turbines spinning in the hills and charging stations for electric cars by Wendy’s in downtown Somerset.

“I used to work at a mine where 365 people worked underground,” Unger said. “Obama and the Clintons were pretty hard on us, and anybody that’s in the coal business knows it’s not going to be like it was.”

One miner’s wife said she voted for Clinton, but wouldn’t give her name. “I don’t like anybody being down there,” she said.

Somerset people know coal the way Inuit know snow. They knew how grim the facts looked on July 24, 2002.

The miners at Quecreek, owned by Black Wolf Coal then, breached an old, flooded shaft, releasing tens of millions of gallons of frigid water. Nine men escaped. Nine became trapped 24 stories below Dormel Farms. Suffocation was their first worry, drowning second.

“I remember driving by on my motorcycle and thinking, ‘Those guys are all dead,’ ” Jason Kaplitz, 52, of Johnstown, said last week at the Coal Miner’s Cafe, down the road in Jennerstown.

On Saturday, Unger sat in the museum with his grandchildren watching clips from The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story, the dramatization of their rescue. He watched the actor who played him shouting through the deafening torrent of water. “It was actually louder than that,” he told his grandson. “It was darker, too.”

Staff Graphic

Dormel Farms owner Bill Arnold displays a dizzying array of artifacts at the museum he built after the rescue: Flannels, lunch pails, scale models, and a real news van. Once the rescue team drilled down to where the miners were trapped, they were taken to the surface, one by one, in a steel-mesh capsule. That’s also on display there.

Flight 93 is on the walls here, too. No one feels comfortable calling the crash memorial a tourist attraction, but admittedly, it’s been an economic boost to the county, even more so than Quecreek.

“You can’t talk about Quecreek without talking about Flight 93. They’re forever tied together here,” said Sheena Baker of Somerset’s Chamber of Commerce.

Religion is peppered in with memorabilia at the Quecreek rescue site, Bible verses between displays of surveying and GPS equipment. Even men who trained their entire lives for such a disaster believe they had help from above.

“Throughout my career, 45 years in the mining industry, I’ve seen a lot of things, a lot of bad things,” said Joe Sbaffoni, retired director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety. “Everything just went the way it had to go here. I’ve done a lot of presentations throughout the years on Quecreek. I still get calls to go and do it because it’s so inspiring. Not only because of the miracle, but for the leadership that was displayed here.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker (center) with Thomas Foy (left) and John Phillippi, two of the nine rescued coal miners. Sbaffoni was the brains, but former Gov. Mark Schweiker was its public face. He pumped his fists in the air atop construction equipment when it was over, his voice hoarse as she shouted, “Nine for nine!” Schweiker remains a revered figure here, the way legendary Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks do. On Thursday, the two men were together for a small ceremony at the farm, and afterward, Schweiker ate dinner with the miners. He does that every year.

The investigation of Quecreek found that miners had been using outdated maps, and Sbaffoni said the policies enacted afterward helped prevent other incidents. Lawsuits were filed and settled. Animosities rose and fell as movie deals were made and books were written.

One man involved in the rescue operation took his own life.

“Some hit the bottle pretty hard,” Unger said.

The miners have never gotten used to the attention. They wear the label “hero” like an itchy wool suit. When the cameras zero in, they get the answers out fast before the emotions follow.

“Miracle,” miner Thomas “Tucker” Foy, 67, replied to one reporter’s question last week.

Asked how often he thinks of Quecreek, he hiked up his jeans and coughed. “Things get rough,” he said.

Foy’s husky voice wavered. “OK, that’s it.”  He walked off, alone, and gazed down at the rescue shaft he’ll never stop remembering.

In the dining hall of the Coal Miner’s Cafe a few miles away, nine framed photos hang like a shrine beside a collection of colorful teapots. ”Believe in Miracles,” a painted sign above the photos reads.

Customer Javan Scheller, 67,  didn’t know the “the nine” but when asked what their survival meant to Somerset County after 9/11, she took a deep breath and placed her palms on the table.

Scheller’s eyes welled up with tears, and she repeated the only thing that helped her make sense of it all. “There is a God,” Scheller whispered. “There is a God.”