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Editorial: Miracle in the mine

Something to cheer in coal country and beyond

Monday, July 29, 2002

In a summer studded with bad news, the rescue of nine miners -- trapped 240 feet down a coal mine in Somerset County for 77 hours -- was an exhilarating reminder that determination, faith and courage can succeed in the most difficult and perilous circumstances.

The media often use the word "miracle" too freely in describing happy outcomes that defy the odds, but the word is as good as any to describe the culmination of the long ordeal at Quecreek Mine. Many desperate prayers were answered as Saturday night turned into Sunday.

The dramatic power of the deliverance came from the fact that, up until the last moment when the rescuers bored into the chamber holding the miners, optimism seemed more dutiful than realistic.

Yet Gov. Mark Schweiker never flagged in his confidence at the scene, providing leadership that belied his status as a caretaker governor. Similarly, the rescue team never gave up on the men below, even though they could have taken every setback as a preordained sign of doom. After all, no fresh sign of life had been detected since tapping was heard on Thursday.

Real life often disappoints, but not this time. No work of fiction could have provided such a happy ending after the breakthrough. There they all were -- safe, in relatively good shape and their courage undaunted. "What took you guys so long?" one reportedly said.

The gritty ethic that sustained the miners, and kept their colleagues tunneling to free them, was once again set before a nation that is generally unmindful of how much it owes mine workers.

If Americans think of the subject at all, it is likely to be in more distant and less personal terms, such as the economics of mining coal, particularly when weighed against the extraction and use of other sources of energy, and the ever-present environmental consequences of burning coal.

But events such as occurred in Somerset Country bring the actual lives of the coal miners front and center.

In this area, at least, we know better than most about such lives, for they are part of our history. Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio are coal country. Many people in this area grew up with an awareness of the importance and the dangers of coal mining.

Many people here know someone who died of black lung. Some know someone who died in a mine accident. Stories of mine disasters are among the most profound, poignant legends of the life of this region. Strikes don't usually last long if public opinion comes into play since most everyone agrees with the point of view that says, "You couldn't pay me enough to do that."

As this event reminds us, it is still very dangerous work. Last year saw 42 deaths -- up from the two previous years -- among the some 100,000 coal miners in the United States.

At some future time, an inquiry must be held to determine what went wrong at Quecreek Mine. For the moment, there is nothing to do but applaud the return of nine brave souls to the light and air and also those who worked so hard to save them.

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