Dramatic mine rescue

BY RACHEL CLARK | QUECREEK, PA | July 28, 2002



"This is what we've been working and praying for. The last three days have led up to this singular moment."

—David Hess, Secretary of the the Department of Emergeny Protection


All nine miners trapped since Wednesday night deep in a coal mine, were pulled safely to the surface early Sunday morning. All tentatively appeared to be in good health and were taken to local hospitals for evaluation.

"This is what we've been working and praying for," said David Hess, Secretary of the Department of Emergency Protection. "The last three days have led up to this singular moment.

Randy Fogle, 48, complained earlier in the evening of chest pains so he was the first man to be pulled from the mine. He was flown to the trauma center at Conemaugh Hospital in nearby Johnstown for evaluation early Sunday morning.

Fogle slumped inside the yellow-steel cage of the rescue capsule. He was covered in dark, wet, earth. Rescue workers cheered as he was raised.

Every 15 minutes, another miner was brought from the collapsed mine.

Each survivor was seen as a victory by the people who worked so diligently to free them from the earth.

"Millions of people from around the world were praying for us," said Hess. "The emails of encouragement, prayer were absolutely outstanding. I think you need this (support), in my experience, when you're doing this kind of stuff.

Fogle was rescued at 1 a.m. He was airlifted to Conemaugh hospital in Johnstown where doctors credited his good health to the hot air pumped into the mine by rescue workers throughout the ordeal.

Harry "Blaine" Mayhugh, 31, made it to the surface fifteen minutes after Fogle. Tom Foy, 52, was next.

Around 1:40 a.m., 52-year-old John Unger arrived. He had injured his right shoulder, but workers said he was in excellent spirits.

One by one, the rest of the trapped nine were taken to safety:

John Philippi, 36, Ron Hileman, 49, Dennis J. Hall, 49, Robert Pugh, Jr., 50 and Mark Popernack, 41.

When Popernack was pulled from the ground at 2:45 a.m., the mass of rescue workers and volunteers greeted him with loud cheers.

He slid underneat the yellow cage-like capsule and into his co-workers' arms.

"When we reached them, one of the first things they said was 'we've been waiting for you,'" said Pennsylvania Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration representative Amy Louviere.

The group spoke with rescue workers through a phone line lowered into the shaft.

"We immediately started to call and they picked it up and started to have a conversation," said David Lauriski, of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Shortly after 10:16 Saturday night, more than 72 hours after the miners were enclosed more than 257 feet underground, rescue workers broke through the shaft they were trapped in.

Rescue shaft one tore up the depth of limestone and sandstone cautiously as it neared the trapped men.

Although rescue workers were tired, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker said they cheered "like their team had won the superbowl."

"Someone yelled 'Praise the Lord!' It was that kind of uplifting moment," he said.

The families reacted similarly, hugging, crying and rejoicing.

"They were overwhelmed," Schweiker said. "I said to them something like 'it's a miracle, they're all alive!'"

Mine Superintendant John Weir spoke to the media about the ordeal.

"I want to thank God, the governor, this team, all the guys on the drill rig," he said. "It's a miracle. We're gonna get 'em out, we're gonna get 'em with their families."

After finding the men alive, rescuers used a specially-designed metal capsule lowered into the mine to bring one person at a time back to the surface.

Salvation Army volunteers, some of whom have been awake since the rescue began Wednesday, said they are tired but joyful.

"They were worried," said Somerset Salvation Army Service Center Director Marilyn Albright. "A lot of them have family that were, at one time, coal miners."

Albright began her work with the Salvation Army shortly before the September 11th crash in nearby Shanksville and helped provide 460 meals a day for three weeks.

"They threw me in the water and I learned to swim," she said.

Since Wednesday, she's helped provide 150 meals a day. While this is an easier task than the September 11 effort, the emotional toll the collapse has taken on the town is immense.

Members of the local media recalled two tornados that swept through Somerset County in 1998, killing a young girl and destroying homes and businesses.

"They're still working hard to rebuild," one editor said.

In spite of the "circus" Albright likened the atmosphere the media brought to her small community, it has banded together she said.

"This community is real strong."

One rescue worker said the families were strong, too.

"They're strong like pillars, and everybody's helping everybody out," he said.

Weir agreed.

"You can't tell me nothin' about coal miners," a tearful Weir said. "They're the toughest men that walk the earth."


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