15 years ago, the world watched and waited to learn the fate of nine trapped Pa. miners

OP1WORDEN31-27072017-0001
Sipesville Fire Chief Mark Zambanini gives the thumbs up sign as miner Mark Popernack, the ninth and final miner, is rescued from the Quecreek mine early on July 28.

In the wee hours of a Sunday morning 15 years ago, on July 28, I was standing in the remains of the vegetable aisle of an abandoned supermarket in Somerset waiting to learn the fate of nine coal miners trapped underground for more than three days.

Waiting, like scores of other reporters and onlookers that swarmed the strip mall parking lot staging area and anyone across America with a TV watching cable news.

As the hours turned to days and the rescue effort, hampered by heavy machinery failure, moved in fits and starts, many of us feared it would turn from rescue to recovery.

Four days earlier when I first heard that miners were trapped in Black Wolf Coal’s Quecreek Mine in Somerset County I thought, what were the chances? Only 10 months earlier I had spent two weeks just 25 miles east across the Allegheny Mountains covering the crash of United Flight 93 on 9/11 and here I was heading back for another catastrophic event.

I arrived at the mine site, 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, as engineers were working frantically to pinpoint the location of the men. Trapped 240 feet below the ground when they inadvertently poked through a mine wall into a flooded abandoned mine, the men were overwhelmed by a torrent of water. The miners ran for their lives through the low-ceilinged “rooms and pillars” of the cavernous space.

Above ground my colleagues from the Inquirer and I were getting a crash course in mining technology, and the history and culture of Southwestern Pennsylvania, still one of the largest coal-producing regions in the country.

As anxious families awaited news at a local fire hall, we learned the bond among miners and their families was woven through the fear that one among them might never return from work one day. For most it was worth the risk. After all, generations of men had been guaranteed employment at good wages. As a few who had done time underground put it: the work was backbreaking and may have left you cramped, wet and dirty, yet it was in your blood.

That changed in latter part of the last century as mines closed and jobs dwindled. For many of us camped out in the parking lot for those days though, it was an awakening to the fact that coal did indeed still turn on the lights in 40 percent of the state.

A day into the event, engineers had pinpointed the miners below a field on a dairy farm and a massive earth-boring drill began pounding away. An air shaft was dug and pumps were set up to remove the water. Then a giant drill bit broke and work was stopped for 18 hours as a mad scramble ensued to locate and ship in another.

The clock ticked.

The drama ebbed and flowed and the crowd of reporters grew. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera arrived in a limousine with a large tent. Across the parking lot local residents pulled in with their lunches and from the windshields of their cars watched the reporters watching state officials. We were cycled through the drill site about a mile away in small groups to observe the operation, while grim-faced family members stood nearby, clutched each other staring at the hole.

Unbeknownst to us the miners were fighting for survival. They had divvied up a lone ham sandwich, lashed themselves together figuring they would die as a group, scrawled farewell notes, and huddled against the cold of the rising water.

The 9/11 tragedy had elevated Mark Schweiker from lieutenant governor to the chief executive’s office when Gov. Tom Ridge was appointed by President George W. Bush as the nation’s first secretary of Homeland Security.

Schweiker, the former Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director, held forth through the crisis with resolve, scurrying between the families at the firehouse and media at the old grocery store.

Late Saturday rescuers dropped a phone down the air shaft hoping for a sign of life. They got it loud and clear when a voice boomed: “There’s nine men ready to get the hell out here.”

Finally the drill broke through. The needle in the coal mine had hit its mark. Rescuers lowered a 22-inch wide rescue capsule into the shaft. At 1 a.m. the first miner was pulled up.

Schweiker emerged from the back of the darkened store into the bright lights of TV cameras, beaming in his flannel shirt and hard hat, to deliver the news everyone had hoped for: “Nine for nine,” he proclaimed. They were all alive.

We scrambled to meet the Inquirer’s final deadline for the night. That morning readers saw the words “Nine Miners Alive” in war type across the front page.

Schweiker ordered an immediate review of state mine safety, leading to a panel’s conclusion that out-of-date maps were to blame for the accident.

State and federal agencies undertook a broad review of thousands of mine maps nationwide to ensure they were current. The General Assembly mandated that mining companies establish a wider buffer zone between active and inactive mines. There have been no known mine entrapments in Pennsylvania since.

For the Quecreek Nine, few went back underground. Some retired, others found new jobs. Blaine Mayhew, who at 31 was the youngest miner rescued, was working in the energy industry when I interviewed him in 2007 on the five-year anniversary of his rescue. Only this time he was spending his days as a windmill technician with breathtaking views of the Laurel Highlands.

“I swore I’d never work underground again,” he told me, sitting at the Quecreek Mine memorial, a few feet from where the rescue capsule hoisted him to safety. “We like to say I used to be 250 feet below ground – now I work 265 feet in the air.”

Amy Worden is a former Inquirer reporter. You can reach her at amycworden@gmail.com.