‘A whole miracle’: twentieth anniversary of the Quecreek Mine rescue

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John Unger promised his spouse that if one thing unhealthy ever occurred on his job within the coal mine, he’d discover a option to survive.

For 29 years, he stored that promise, all the time returning to the agricultural, century-old Somerset County dwelling the place they raised a household and tended to their cattle.

However all that modified shortly earlier than 9 p.m. on July 24, 2002, when Unger and eight different miners, counting on outdated maps, mistakenly bored by an deserted part of a neighboring coal seam, unleashing 72 million gallons of frigid water that blocked their exit and trapping them 240 ft underground on the Quecreek Mine.

“I all the time informed her, it didn’t matter how unhealthy it received in there, when the mud cleared, I’d be there,” Unger stated.

However this was totally different.

“This time,” he stated, “I believed I bit off greater than I might chew.”

Whereas rescuers feverishly labored in stifling humidity for 77 hours, the miners, battling the results of bone-chilling chilly and a dwindling air provide, shared the little meals they’d left, huddled collectively for heat and penned farewell letters to their family members on shreds of cardboard, sealing them in a lunch field for safekeeping.

Unger, now 72, stated he signed a letter to his spouse, “I’m sorry,” relatively than, “I like you,” a nod to that promise he feared he was about to interrupt.

Stranded within the grim darkness of a 4-foot-high chamber the place the miners sought refuge, his thoughts was overwhelmed with ideas of what would occur to his household and his farm if he didn’t survive.

“God gave us all a second likelihood,” Unger stated. “Within the mining business, that doesn’t all the time occur.”

That second likelihood got here late on Saturday, July 27, when drillers punched a gap within the Lincoln Township mine about 100 yards from the miners and a crane operator meticulously lowered a slim, yellow, steel capsule to start lifting them, one after the other, by a 26-inch gap.

It was a precarious, untested rescue technique, the product of brainstorming by groups working in opposition to the clock to avoid wasting the miners earlier than they drowned within the rising flood waters or suffocated when their air provide ran out.

With a military of reporters and tv cameras from all over the world capturing each second of the rescue, the primary miner lifted out was foreman Randy Fogle.

Though every miner was affected by the results of the chilly and dehydration, medical groups assigned to them marveled at what fine condition they had been in after they emerged from the mine.

Unger was the fourth out of the mine. The trip to the highest took six minutes.

“That was one of the best six minutes of my life,” he stated.

Extra change forward

Extra than simply the miners’ outlook on life modified after the accident.

“We had been regular individuals once we went in, (and when) we received again out, it was all modified,” Unger stated.

In July 2002, People had been nonetheless shaken by the 9/11 terrorist assaults simply 10 months earlier. However the nation was buoyed by the joyful ending that performed out at Quecreek, positioned 10 miles from the place United Airways Flight 93 crashed right into a discipline on Sept. 11, 2001.

Everybody wished to listen to the miners’ story, shake their arms, have their image taken with them.

The miners met President George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Pittsburgh sports activities figures.

A film was made about their expertise. They launched a e-book.

Most of them simply wished to return to the simplicity of their previous lives.

For fellow miner Robert Pugh, 70, of Quemahoning, that was simpler stated than completed.

Along with the crush of the eye, the accident took an emotional toll.

“I nonetheless all the time give it some thought,” stated Pugh, who labored in mines for 32 years and right this moment maintains a goat and rooster farm about 4 miles from the Quecreek mine, which closed for good in 2018. “I nonetheless have issues sleeping at evening.”

The place the mine was now resides a museum and memorial that draw upwards of 10,000 individuals a yr, in keeping with Invoice Arnold, proprietor of the farm on which the mine was positioned and who serves as govt director of the Quecreek Mine Rescue Basis and its customer middle.

Six of the miners — Blaine Mayhugh, Ronald Hileman, Mark Popernack, John Phillippi, Randy Fogle and Tom Foy — didn’t return calls in search of interviews for this story.

Miner Dennis Corridor, 68, died Could 13 at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Heart in Johnstown.

The place are they now?

A few of the rescued miners returned to the bituminous coal business, whereas others discovered work in numerous fields.

Pugh and Unger take pleasure in time with their children and grandkids and have returned to an previous pastime — searching.

“I killed a deer that yr I got here out,” stated Unger, who has amassed dozens of deer antlers, along with a mount of a kudu — a sort of antelope — he shot in South Africa.

He wished to return to mining, however after a “nice protest” from his household, he compromised and went to work above floor within the business earlier than retiring in 2015.

It’s a job he cherished from the day he began in 1974, incomes $50 a day to avoid wasting a $5,000 down cost for a home.

He and his spouse, Sue, now married 50 years, have by no means opened that be aware that he penned whereas trapped underground.

“We by no means checked out it after I wrote it,” he stated. “We by no means wanted it.”

Eight of the 9 miners settled lawsuits in opposition to the mine, the corporate that ran it and the agency that licensed the maps utilized by the miners.

The second group of 9 miners who scrambled to security when the mine flooded that evening additionally shared within the settlement.

Beneath the phrases of that settlement, the award to the miners stays confidential, and the businesses didn’t admit any negligence.

Transferring ahead

The miners are answerable for an enduring legacy of their business.

An investigation concluded a scarcity of correct underground maps led to the accident. That resulted in a push to gather, digitize and archive previous mine maps in addition to revamp state legal guidelines aimed toward making coal mining safer.

“They’ve modified that in order that received’t occur once more,” Unger stated proudly.

On a sunny morning this previous April, Unger returned once more, this time holding onto the cane he makes use of now after breaking his leg in a farming accident final yr.

He generally talks in a comfortable tone when talking concerning the ordeal. He stated he believes a better energy — and never simply these above floor — had a task in ensuring the miners returned dwelling.

“All of us ought to’ve died right here,” he stated. “It ended up an entire miracle when it might’ve been an entire catastrophe.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Evaluate workers author. You may contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@triblive.com or through Twitter .


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