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All through Somerset County, mine families maintain a vigil

Friday, July 26, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

QUECREEK, Pa. -- Terry Mullen awoke yesterday to the news on the radio.

There was a washout in a coal mine in her rural stretch of northwest Somerset County. Nine men were trapped more than 200 feet deep in the earth. The prospects of rescue were uncertain.

She cried. Hard.

 
    Mine disasters

The history of mine accidents is recounted in grim news stories accompanied by photos of black-faced men and stone-faced children.

"Mutilated bodies, blackened by coal dust and mangled by flying fragments of slate, are pouring forth in a constant stream from the wrecked entries of the ill-fated Darr Mine No. 129" began a story in the Pittsburg Press about the 1907 explosion in Jacobs Creek that killed 239 miners. A photograph of a group standing around the destroyed mine entrance and of a "new orphan" accompany the story.

In the 19th and early 20th century, fatal accidents were commonplace in mines. Accidents with fatalities over 100 were still occurring in the United States at mid-century, and the world's worst mine disaster was in 1942.

A coal dust explosion blew apart the Honkeiko Colliery in Manchuria were killed April 25, 1942, killing 1,549 workers.

In the United States, the accident with the highest number of fatalities since 1900 was in Monongah, W.Va., Dec. 6, 1907. Less than two weeks later, the accident at Jacobs Creek, Pa., claimed 239 lives. It was the fourth worst U.S. disaster.

The month had begun with an explosion that killed 34 people at the Naomi Mine in Fayette County. Before the month was over, more than 3,200 miners had been killed across the country in work-related accidents.

Of the 46 worst mine disasters in U.S. history, eight occurred in Pennsylvania and eight in West Virginia.

In 1962, 37 were killed at the Robena Mine in Carmichaels.

The last disaster in Pennsylvania with more than five fatalities was in 1977, when seven anthracite-coal miners were killed in a cave-in at Big Lick Mountain in Schuylkill County.

Since 1980, there have been a handful of accidents in Pennsylvania, all with fewer than four deaths.

 
 

Her husband is a miner. And he was at work.

"It was like waking up to 9/11 again," Mullen said yesterday as she stood in the doorway of the family home on the fringe of Acosta, a wisp of a village eight miles north of Somerset.

Then, minutes later, on came the newscaster again. The washout wasn't at the mine where Dave Mullen worked. It was at Black Wolf Mining Co.'s nearby Quecreek Mine.

Still, Terry Mullen cried.

This much anguish couldn't drain that easily. Then, there were tears for the others who were getting news that, indeed, their husband or father or friend was deep in the earth, in cold and damp and blackness, in a piece of mine little more than four feet high. And finally, there were tears from the angst of simply being a miner's spouse.

"It's hard on you. You never know," she said. "My husband and I -- when he goes to work, we don't ever say goodbye. It's, 'I love you,' and, 'I'll see you when you get back.'"

Across these Somerset County hills yesterday, distress hung like the gray clouds that wouldn't lift. People kept vigil around televisions and in meeting places such as Codispoti's Grocery, a tiny market in the community of Jenners. They panned for news -- names of the missing, progress toward freeing them, anything from an operation in which particulars about the trapped miners were kept under tight lid.

"Everybody who comes in wants to know what's happening, who it is," Betty Codispoti said as she tended the cash register at her market. "Everybody's just waiting."

"It's on every church's prayer chain," said retiree Margaret Morgan, next-door neighbor to trapped miner Ron Hileman, married and father of two grown daughters. "It's on our prayer chain up at the Christian Missionary and Alliance, and they said they'd put it on their prayer chain over at the Christian Church."

"It has to be just horrible down there -- trapped, not knowing if you'll get out," Bonnie Lambert said as she kept an eye on the television set in her home at Sipesville, just up the road from where rescuers and firefighters watched as relief crews shot compressed air 240 feet into the earth, trying to fight back the water that had miners trapped in the Kittanning coal seam.

To Mark Zambanini, chief of Sipesville Fire Company, a mile up the road from where the miners were trapped, even suggesting that the rescue would not bring out all the miners alive seemed unthinkable.

"We're going to do it," he told reporters, repeating the phrase as if it were a mantra. "We're going to succeed."

But from a vantage point in a church parking lot 100 yards from where rescuers sank the first drill toward the trapped miners, friends Calvin Wyant and George Critchfield fretted about the unthinkable, about rising water and hypothermia.

Indeed, there were many scenarios for the unthinkable, said Joseph Sbaffoni, a deep-mine safety expert with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"When the flooding started, it probably was knocking these guys down," he said. "When it came in, did it drown some of them right away? Were any washed down and couldn't get up?"

The rescue attempt was kept largely out of sight. State troopers shooed rubbernecking motorists past the place where drills would bore into the earth, a spot picked through the technology of a global positioning system.

But it was a race against fate that would draw a cast ranging from Gov. Mark Schweiker to mine rescue experts and bring anything from a 50-ton crane to the concrete and tons of rock on which to park it.

Zambanini said he long fretted about what would happen were there an emergency in the nearly 2-year-old Quecreek Mine.

"Now I know what would happen," he said. "We work together."


Correction/Clarification: (Published July 27, 2002) In our coverage yesterday of the efforts to rescue nine coal miners trapped in a flooded shaft in Somerset County, we said the most recent mine disaster in Pennsylvania involving more than five fatalities took place in 1962. In fact, seven anthracite-coal miners were killed in a cave-in at Big Lick Mountain in Schuylkill County on March 1, 1977.

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