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Happy ending to real-life drama enthralls audience around globe

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Later in the day that miner Harry Blaine Mayhugh emerged from a cramped black pit 240 feet underground into the world's bright stare, one reporter asked if he'd expected so much interest in his story.

"I thought locally, up to Pittsburgh, but I didn't think ..."

He was interrupted by a chorus of laughs from reporters and photographers from around the country and beyond.

Nine men started the second shift Wednesday as coal-of-the-earth Western Pennsylvanians. They came out more than three days later as celebrities to a region and a nation and a world that had become captivated by their ordeal and thrilled at the happy ending.

"Once in a while, this world surprises you," said Rick Zahn as he stopped at a Somerset convenience store on his way to a construction job Sunday morning. Mayhugh and eight other miners had just been rescued after being trapped for 78 hours in the nearby Quecreek Mine. When equipment breakdowns created rescue delays, many people -- including some of the miners themselves -- thought there was no way they would survive.

The real-life drama reached viewers around the world via TV crews that were dispatched by Britain's BBC and other foreign stations. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC provided live coverage throughout Saturday night. CBS broke into national programming with regular updates, and NBC kept viewers up on the rescue's progress with a crawl across the screen.

And the world reacted. Early on, the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 United Flight 93 crash, another global story that happened just 10 miles away, sent an e-mail of support to the miners' families.

"Something like this sure can change the way you look at things," Zahn said.

Something like this sure had people looking at their televisions and newspapers and the Internet. Jan Kowaleski of the Somerset County town of Friedans wasn't the only person who stayed up all Saturday night watching the rescue, and spoke for many the next morning when he said, "You hoped all along that they were alive, and you didn't give up that hope."

In an often tragic world, this hopeful story was a welcome one not only to those eagerly following it, but also to those telling it. The ranks of media swelled Saturday night, filling the parking lot in front of a closed Giant Eagle grocery with dozens of TV news and satellite link trucks. Many big news franchises were on the scene, from the New York Times to Geraldo.

When Gov. Mark Schweiker confirmed, "All nine are alive!", the reporters uncharacteristically broke into applause. "It was pure spontaneous emotion," said veteran Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Michael A. Fuoco, who adds that he's "never, ever been to a news conference that was anything like that."

Traffic soared on www.post-gazette.com. On Sunday, for instance, traffic was up 75 percent over any other Sunday this month, and yesterday morning, the site had more simultaneous users than any day since Sept. 12, the day after the terrorist attacks.

Upbeat e-mails and letters -- including one poem -- poured in: It's been a time, as Rita Ehreiser of Fort Lauderdale put it, "when the world looks at your region."

Here are a few other letters that have come into the Post-Gazette:

"I just want to say that you have not been alone in your anguish over the miners. We all crossed our fingers and hoped you would get them out. The news today was something to smile about. Thanks to a lot of dedicated people and maybe a little luck, a lot of kids have their dads back."

-- Grant Husdon
Vancouver, Canada

"Never have I been so proud of the people of my home state than I have been in the last few days of the mining crisis. As I watched from my home outside Houston, I paced, worried, and finally cried tears of joy and relief for the men and their families.

"I took the time over those days to explain to my daughters that, while your body leaves the state, your heart doesn't."

-- Linda Martin Foster
Conroe, Texas

"I'm in New York, the grandson of a Butler County steelworker, watching the cable news station and jumping up and punching the air and cheering and crying. Who cares if the stock market is going to hell? How can anyone ever pay attention to those reality TV shows again? Dribble some melted American cheese over capiccola; stuff a pierogi with blueberries; go to Curtain Call and drink an Italian soda (me, I'll try to find an Iron City here); and tell your children that America has just experienced a second Apollo 13 ending!"

-- Jim Vespe
Larchmont, N.Y.

"I turned my radio on for the 9 a.m. news here Sunday morning. The first article reported the rescue of the miners. It was really great news. So much bad news has been landed on our American cousins of late it was a welcome change to hear something good."

-- Brian Payne
Liverpool, England

"I am a third generation coal miner from Cape Breton Island. I have been following the coal mining crisis in Somerset since the events began to unfold. I cried tears of joy when I learned that all nine coal miners were rescued and were in good spirits.

"I read that one of the trapped miners joked about needing some 'chew' when they pulled him from the hole. Humour has always been a miner's friend when faced with the dangers of the deep. It is a universal tool in our arsenal.

"How typical of the coal miners on the surface to believe 'right in their gut' that if anyone could make it through those horrific conditions, a coal miner could. I know in my heart that the miners underground found comfort in the knowledge that their brothers would never quit on them and that awareness helped to fuel their will to survive against all odds."

-- Stephen J.W. Drake
New Waterford,
Nova Scotia, Canada

"As a native Pittsburgher, transplanted to San Antonio 30 years ago, I followed the rescue on television and through www.post-gazette.com. You perfectly captured the indomitable spirit of the miners, their families, neighbors, rescue workers, and all of us who were fortunate to be born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. And kudos to Gov. Mark Schweiker, whose never-ending optimism and genuine caring and concern helped connect those of us watching on television with the events in Somerset County."

-- Patti Shackelford Larsen
San Antonio, Texas (formerly of Avalon)

"The rescue of the nine miners in Somerset means more to America than one initially thinks.

"After never-ending stories of abducted and murdered children, and a Wall Street economy that has many people skeptical about its recent rally, a story of survival is just what we need.

"Just imagine the 70-plus hours spent in a cold, wet, dark cave, with barely enough room to stand upright. The water level is too high that you cannot squat or sit down, to take some strain off of your aching legs and back. It seems easy to say, 'That's it for them,' and offer condolences to the family members. But the stubborn workers in that small mining community wouldn't quit.

"Sunday morning was not just a beginning to a new day, it was the exercise of a new heart."

-- Nick Plavsich
Lorain, Ohio

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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