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Fear, guilt for families and friends of miners

Saturday, July 27, 2002

By Judy Lin, The Associated Press

QUECREEK, Pa. -- Mary Unger spent part of yesterday sitting alone by her telephone, waiting for news of her son and the eight other men trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine.

At 87, Unger is too frail to go to the mine herself to keep a vigil for 52-year-old John Unger and the others.

"He's my only son," she said, her voice halting with emotion. "It's awful. The waiting. It seems like things just keep going wrong."

The men have been trapped in a passage 240 feet below ground since Wednesday night, when they broke through the wall of an adjacent, flooded mine their maps showed was hundreds of feet away.

The effort to bore a rescue shaft suffered a setback Friday when a drill bit broke.

Hours ticked by before officials were able to get equipment in place to resume drilling.

The trapped men were described as a strong bunch, among the most experienced mine hands and accustomed to the harsh life underground.

"They say if anyone can get out, it's that crew," said Lori Supanick, a neighbor of both Ronald Hileman and John Phillippi in the small mining village of Gray.

Phillippi is married and has a young son, Supanick said. His wife has been at the mine for two days and remained hopeful and in good spirits.

She also described Hileman as an avid sportsman who often regales children at his wife's daycare center with hunting tales.

Thomas Foy's sister, Neva Glassner, 40, said her brother was the group's crew leader. She described him as an outdoorsman.

"I think it's the government's fault. I hate to blame anyone, but I wish the maps were correct, then the workers wouldn't have made their mistake," Glassner said.

Nine other miners were in the mine when the icy floodwaters came.

But the men now trapped inside were able to warn their colleagues with an urgent radio warning: "The water's on the way. Get out."

One of those who got out, Doug Custer, 45, said he walked and rode in a vehicle for nearly 45 minutes -- at times in water that was knee deep -- to escape.

Custer was among a crowd at the mine yesterday, waiting for word.

"It's slow and nerve-wracking," he said. "Things aren't going the way they should."

Custer's wife, Cathy, 42, said he was in a mine collapse five years ago and shattered his right knee. She said her husband has promised her he will hang up his hard hat.

"We're just praying and asking for a miracle," she said. "We feel guilty because they're our friends and he escaped."

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