PA remembers mine rescue

What could have ended as a tragedy became a media-mobbed miracle.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | QUECREEK, Pa. | July 29, 2003



"It's not a disaster, it's a miracle."

—Rev. Barry Ritenour


What could have ended as a tragedy became a media-mobbed miracle, and in the process turned nine ordinary miners into celebrities.

A year after the Quecreek mining accident that required the 77-hour rescue of nine men, residents here staged an entire week of celebrations, ceremonies and prayer services, all in commemoration of a disaster that didn't happen.

Most of the events were held at the site of the accident the Arnold farm in Quecreek which has been transformed from a quiet, rural farm to a tourist attraction that brings tourists on a daily basis. The largest gathering was held Saturday, when a bronze statue was consecrated at the site by former Gov. Mark Schweiker. This effigy, of a miner reading a book, was the first of seven statutes to be cast and erected at the site.

These festivities, which began the previous weekend, were mirrored in the town of Windber, about 15 miles northeast of Quecreek. Events concluded with a prayer service Sunday afternoon.

In Quecreek, however, the week of remembrance ended in a somewhat stranger fashion. The last activity on Sunday afternoon: farm tractor square dancing.

"Promenade!" shouted the master of ceremonies through a bullhorn, to pairs of farm tractors that circled around the field not 20 yards from the site of the miraculous rescue.

The crowd of hundreds that thronged the field the day before was gone. Less than ten people watched the dancers, middle-aged men wearing red, white and blue denim-shirts, do-si-do on their John Deeres.

Despite the roaring engines in the background, Mel Arnold, one of the owners of the farm, explained to tourists the significance of the memorial site.

Nine large granite blocks and nine small evergreens are set up in a ring around a young red oak. The block signify "the forgotten nine," Arnold explained, the nine miners who made it out before the shaft collapse, and the evergreens represent the nine miners who were rescued under the watchful eye of the national television networks. And the red oak is symbolic of The Almighty.

"Without His help, they wouldn't be out," Arnold said.

For many people, the mine rescue was a religious miracle, he said. This is represented by the likeness of angel, cut out of sheet iron, planted in the shrubbery near the bronze miner statue.

Some even object to characterizing the rescue as "a disaster."

"It's not a disaster, it's a miracle," said the Rev. Barry Ritenour, pastor of the Bethany and St. John's United Methodist church in nearby Sipesville.

"We always believed in miracles and God," Arnold said. "Being His instrument is no problem for us."

Barry Friedline, a relative who started helping out at the site last August ("They were just swamped," he said), agreed that many tourists come to Quecreek for religious reasons.

"People want to come to see where a miracle took place," he said.

But the Quecreek incident didn't turn out to be a miracle for everybody involved. In June Robert Long, one of the most prominent men working on the rescue, fatally shot himself outside his Somerset County home. Some have attributed the pressures of national celebrity as a possible cause of his suicide.

Arnold, however, dismisses the idea that the mine rescue changed his own life in any essential way. While he acknowledges that his once-quiet farm is now a tourist magnet, he's not too concerned.

"We had to do what we could to help," he said. "Now we've just got to live with it."


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