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Once again, a miner's loved ones look down

Saturday, July 27, 2002

Delores Saintz was keeping the television off. This was not a matter of indifference. Already, she had prayed for the nine strangers trapped beneath a hillside in the next county.

"I'll wait," she said. "But I don't want to be hearing it constantly."

That space in her head was permanently occupied on Dec. 19, 1984, when, a mile beneath another mountain 2,000 miles west, her daughter, Nannette Saintz Wheeler, was killed in a flash of fire.

The Wilberg Mine, just outside Castle Dale, Utah, burst into flame as Nannette Wheeler and 26 others tried to set a world record for the amount of coal pulled from the earth in a single day.

"They wanted the best miners working it," said Nannette's father, Ed Saintz. "She was the only woman in the crew."

So, as workers placed a prodigious machine above a flooded shaft in Somerset County and confused families huddled behind a police guard at a small fire house, Ed and Delores Saintz sat in a silent room atop a settlement called Benshoff Hill in Cambria County and tried to turn off a certain noise in their heads. Nannette's photograph, her hair in the puffy style of the late 70s, smiled at them from a living room wall. Underneath their house runs an abandoned mine.

If steel has been the bone of this country, coal has been its marrow. For 100 years it was scratched out in frozen rivers that stretch across state boundaries, widening, narrowing, stretching under mountains and rolling at points close enough to the surface to be scraped off with drag lines. For generations, families have sent their breadwinners under the ground, sometimes belly-down, in search of the last wisps of coal to offer as holocaust to the gods of industry.

Nannette Saintz trained to be a teacher. As the economy in Western Pennsylvania ossified into permanent recession, she took a job at a mine outside Johnstown. A brief marriage left her with little but a new last name, Wheeler. When the Solomon Run Mine closed up, she and her new fiancee, Tom Hockins, found jobs with Emery Mining Co. in Utah.

"She was bold. Nothing seemed to bother her," said her brother, DeVon. "It was a longwall mine. It was just a huge machine. She worked hydraulics. She sent us a picture of the mine showing this huge thing and drew in a little stick figure and wrote next to it: 'me.' "

It was, he surmised, her assurance that, whatever went wrong where the rock was falling, she was far from the danger.

The summer before she died, Nannette came home for a visit.

"She cried. I said, 'You don't have to go back,' " Ed Saintz said. "But she did." In Western Pennsylvania, a man's child goes where the work is. The work was in Utah.

Then the Wilberg Mine exploded in cataracts of smoke and fire.

At first, of course, there was hope, just as there was this week at Quecreek. Then, as time passed, hope ran in thinner and thinner seams until, like an exhausted mine, it was a place no longer worth entering.

For 11 months, Nannette Wheeler had a whole mountain for her grave. Finally, in November of the following year, she was retrieved and brought back to Benshoff Hill, put under a coal-black stone that reads "Wheeler-Hockins, Nannette Saintz, Jan. 8, 1951 -- Dec. 19, 1984." Next to it is a place for Tom Hockins.

Emery Mining was fined for safety violations. Ed Saintz attended the hearings and for years kept the accumulated documents until the constant pain of seeing them around the house became too much and he consigned them to a fire of their own.

For a brief moment, sitting there in that dark living room, he poured out his anger at the loss of his daughter, the futility of trying to set a record at coal mining, at a company that didn't bother with an escape route. He noticed Delores staring from a chair across the room.

"Am I talking too much? Do you want me to stop talking now?" he asked.

"Enough is enough," she said softly.

The room fell quiet. Enough of the past had been stirred up for one day. There were men under a hillside in the next county and there was no leaving that living room on Benshoff Hill without the sense that, years from now, another elderly couple would be having the same conversation while crews drilled mightily against time and earth.

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