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After 78 hours in the dark, fearing they would drown, the miners saw the drill break through

'Help, help, please get us out'

Monday, July 29, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr. and Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

QUECREEK, Pa. -- In cold, wet blackness 240 feet below the world that didn't know if they were alive or dead, nine miners took turns snuggling each other for warmth.

Mark Popernack, 41, of Somerset, describes the experience of being rescued from the mine. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Since Wednesday night when they'd accidentally dug into a neighboring abandoned mine and their mine was inundated by an explosion of millions of gallons of water, they'd spent hours swimming, walking, standing and crouching in the frigid water that glowed orange in the intermittent light from their headlamps.

They found refuge in a chamber about 20 feet wide and 4 feet high. But when the water began rising, the men kept moving, hoping to find an even higher spot.

Once they even tried to break through another rock wall to bring the water level down.

Instead, the water rose over their heads and they had to swim for a time in their heavy mining clothes.

At one point, they tore up a cardboard box, jotted last words to their loved ones and dropped them into a pail they affixed to a wall.

At another point, they built a dike of cinder blocks and tried to block the water with piles of canvas, but it was no use.

 
 
More on the rescue

State begins investigation of trapping of miners

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

Family who owned drilling site offers hospitality in ordeal

The Quecreek nine in the order that they were pulled from the shaft

Photojournal

   
 

So the nine began tying themselves together. If they were going to drown, they were going to drown together, and their bodies could be found together, too.

The water kept coming. At one point it rose so high that the nine men strained to stretch their necks above it and gasped for air.

Then, the water stopped rising.

It began to recede.

It dropped so much that the nine decided to slosh back to that chamber where they hoped rescuers would seek them.

And that's exactly what happened. Around 3:30 a.m. Thursday, while pumping water out of the mine, rescuers drilled a 6-inch hole into that chamber, and the miners exchanged excited taps on the drill equipment with the world above.

It would be nearly two full days before a bigger shaft would be drilled through and the last of the nine miners would be pulled to safety.

The full details of what happened underground are slower to emerge. But from descriptions from the few miners who have talked to the news media so far, and from officials and family members, a picture emerges of nine guys who, even during their lowest point, stuck together. They did everything they could to prop each other up so they all would survive.

"Everybody had strong moments," a teary Mayhugh, 31, said yesterday at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.


 
 
Listen In

Gov. Mark Schweiker addresses the rescue workers after all nine trapped men were rescued from Quecreek Mine.
(1653K MP3)

Dave Lauriski, assistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Adminsitration, praises the rescue workers for not losing hope.
(718K MP3)

David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, talks to reporters about overcoming nagging doubts for more than three days.
(775K MP3)

This was the reaction from rescue workers as the last man emerged from the rescue tunnel at Quecreek Mine.
(287K MP3)

Earlier in the day, Gov. Schweiker announces all nine miners are alive in Quecreek Mine.
(933K MP3)


Download MP3 players at:
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"At a certain time maybe one guy got down and the rest pulled together and then that guy would get back up and maybe someone else would feel a little weaker.

"It was a team effort. That's the only way it could have been."

Mark Popernack was running the mining machine that cut into an uncharted section of an abandoned mine, filled with a half-century's worth of groundwater -- at least 50 million gallons.

"It was an instant flood -- two seconds, one second, an instant flood," he recounted.

It washed away heavy equipment and made a river that roared so loudly it drowned out shouts.

One of the miners, Dennis Hall, managed to get away and use a mine phone to alert another group of nine miners in another branch of Quecreek Mine, a call that officials say saved that crew.

But Popernack was cut off from his co-workers. He thought they still had a chance to escape, too, out a mile of passageways to the mine mouth. But Popernack himself -- 41, married father of sons 9 and 10 -- figured he was stranded there to die.

"They couldn't hear me over the water," he said. "I shook my head, shook my lamp -- no, I couldn't make it."

His eight peers struggled through neck-deep water, only to find the rest of the passageways flooded.

They returned. And as the water slowed -- but still raged too hard for a man to walk across -- Popernack's co-workers fetched him with a scoop, a squat counterpart to a highlift used in mines.

The exact chronology of the events that followed is elusive, but Popernack figures it was a couple hours, give or take a few, into the ordeal that they tried to stem the rising water with the block dike. Then they waited -- seven of them tied together with a cable, and he and crew chief Larry Fogle ready to join them.

But when Fogle moved maybe 100 feet down to the water's edge to make one of his periodic checks of how fast the water was rising, he found it had slowed -- then stopped.

"He says, 'Pray the water goes down,' " Popernack said.

As it did, they passed the rest of the 78 hours talking to hearten each other, sleeping and praying. Constantly, they prayed.

"We could hear different guys praying at different times,," Popernack said yesterday as he sat in his back yard in Somerset, clouds racing across a blue sky and a breeze coming off a nearby dam called Trolls Lake. Mayhugh described the men "snuggling each other, laying up against each other, sitting back-to-back to each other, anything to produce body heat."

They also huddled around the pipe through which rescuers blew in warm air -- along with hope.

The pressurized air was meant to hold back hypothermia as well as the rising water, and it worked. The men, officials would say later, were within minutes of drowning when the pipe was lowered into the shaft.

Mayhugh said the chamber where the miners waited became relatively dry. It was so noisy from the air pipe that it was hard to hear anything.

Even though they could hear the drilling equipment grinding away on the rescue shaft, they couldn't tell whether it had broken through, so periodically, they would send two men to that part of the chamber to look.

Otherwise, they conserved their headlamps and waited in the pitch blackness.

Mayhugh said they knew how much time was passing -- he kept looking at his watch. When they couldn't hear the drilling for a stretch of many hours, "we thought maybe they gave up on us or something major happened. We had no idea what to think."

Mostly, he thought of his family, about what he'd last said to them Wednesday, and that it was "the only day in my life I never kissed my wife before I went to work."

There were times when he thought he'd never again see her or his two children. Then he told himself: You've got to pull together. You've got to do for your family.

"Everybody was drained emotionally -- very cold, very wet," Popernack said. "We had several conversations. We'd go hours without saying anything, then we'd talk."

They pondered what people were doing on the surface. They recounted what had happened.

One time, Popernack asked his crewmates to choose whether they'd most want a beer, a chew or a hot chocolate. In the cold and dark, hot chocolate won.

And then, after hours and hours, the men thought they heard the roar of the rescue shaft finally breaking through, and hoped it wasn't another false alarm.

Thomas Foy and Ron Hileman went to check, then returned to shout: "We got a hole! Everybody come down here!"

Said Mayhugh: "We just started yelling up, 'Help, help, please get us out!' "


Post Gazette staff writers Michael A. Fuoco, Steve Levin and Johnna A. Pro, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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