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'We have so much to be thankful for this morning'

Monday, July 29, 2002

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

QUECREEK, Pa. -- As Thelma Fritz made her way through the parking lot of the Christ Casebeer Lutheran Church yesterday morning dressed in her Sunday finest, the enthusiasm she felt was evident in her light and springy step.

Andrea Policicchio looks out from the window of her restaurant in Boswell, where Bob Pugh Jr., one of the miners, is a regular customer. (John Beale, Post-Gazette photos)

"Happy morning," Fritz called out to no one in particular as she made her way to the church for the 8:30 a.m. service. "We have so much to be thankful for this morning."

Indeed they did.

Just hours earlier, the last of nine coal miners trapped for more than three days 240 feet underground had been lifted to safety, bringing to a close an agonizing wait for the little community of Quecreek and the world that watched.

From Somerset to Johnstown and in the tiny rural hamlets that dot the Pennsylvania hills, there were tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving as people who knew the miners and people who didn't made their way to churches yesterday morning.

"Alleluia is certainly the correct response after the last days," said the Rev. Martin Breski, of All Saints Parish in Boswell, where the parents of miner Robert Pugh Jr. attend Mass.

Breski was one of several ministers who counseled people throughout the agonizing ordeal.

He told the congregation that after days of anxious waiting, watching the miners being lifted from the earth reminded him of Christ being lifted from the tomb on the day of resurrection.

"It was an absolutely gorgeous sight -- people bursting from the bowels of the earth," he said, telling a standing-room-only crowd that God had heard the prayers of the world. "It happened because of prayer -- people around the world knocking on heaven's door asking for one more chance."

During the Mass, Breski asked for parishioners to offer a prayer of thanks -- nine times. So as Breski called out each miner's name, the congregation recited the Hail Mary.

Among those attending Mass was Bill Kaltenbaugh of Berlin, who after the "high drama" of the weekend felt it was important to spend time with God.

"Just maybe to give thanks," Kaltenbaugh said, tears welling in his eyes.

Nick Morgan and Samantha Miller, right, light candles yesterday at All Saints Parish in Boswell for each of the nine men rescued from Quecreek. Nine mining helmets, nine carnations and nine statues of miners were placed in the church, and the Sunday morning service became a celebration of the miners' rescue.

His friend, Brenda Reckner of Jenners-town, also was struck by a need to recognize the role of divine intervention in rescuing the men.

"It was a miracle," Reckner said.

Following the service, Mary and Robert Pugh Sr. made their way to the altar. The elder Pugh collects statues of miners and on the altar were nine of his figurines. In addition, the altar was decorated with nine white candles, nine red carnations and American flags, and nine white helmets.

After saying a silent prayer, the couple wrapped each other in a tight hug, smiling broadly as Breski snapped photos and well-wishers greeted them with hugs and kind words.

Robert Pugh spoke of a family reunion he didn't get to attend.

It mattered not.

At 2:30 a.m. they watched on a television monitor as rescue workers pulled their son to safety.

"That was our reunion," he said. "We got him back."

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