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Chapter One

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The Miners

For thousands of years, sinuous stripes of bituminous coal have lain beneath the surface of the wooded hills and valleys of what is now Somerset County. Its extraction fueled an industrial revolution, lured our immigrant ancestors, and contributed to Western Pennsylvania's reputation for hard work and hard living.

As a piece of our history, coal mining has seemed herculean, monumental, even romantic.

REFLECTING ON HIS TERROR: After flood waters separated him from his companions, miner Mark Popernack thought he would die alone. But the other miners saved him, using a motorized scooping machine to haul him back across the raging water. "We constantly prayed," he said. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

But on the afternoon of July 24, it was just a job.

Eighteen miners left their homes in small towns dotting the Laurel Highlands and drove to Quecreek Mine, which lay beneath a dairy farm in Lincoln Township just off Somerset Pike. They gathered at its entry portal at 2:30 p.m., just as most of them had for five or six days a week since March.

There they split into two crews of nine, one to enter and head straight south, the other to bear left and begin chipping the east face.

With clouds rolling in and out, it was an agreeable day. But soon they would leave it behind, riding a motorized cart on a dug-out ramp a mile-and-a-half long, which would take them into the cool darkness 245 feet below the surface -- as far down as a 25-story building is up.

At 31, Harry Blaine Mayhugh Jr. was the youngest on his crew of nine. They rarely called him by his given names. He was "Stinky." He called them by equally affectionate nicknames.

Mayhugh was one of the guys. The living room of his home in Meyersdale, about 25 miles south of the Quecreek Mine, is decorated in classic Southwestern Pennsylvania sportsman's motif, including a mounted buck's head, fishing lures and other wildlife knickknacks, and ducks floating around the ceiling on the wallpaper border.

The husky 6-footer played football and baseball at Meyersdale High School. Just after he graduated in 1989, he started dating Leslie Foy, who was entering her junior year. They became engaged while he was in the U.S. Navy, and after his two years were up in 1992, they got married and had a son and a daughter.

REJOICING AT SECOND CHANCES: Rescued miner John Phillippi pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts while recalling his swirling emotions in the hours before he was hoisted from the mine. "It's just a real tough thing. You're thinking about a lot of things you could have lost, everyday things you took for granted." (V.W.H. Campbell Jr./Post-Gazette, Post-Gazette)

Mayhugh worked in a factory and then for a lawn-care company before becoming a deep miner in 1997. Despite having to contort his big frame for eight hours in the 4- to-4 1/2-foot-high mine shafts, he enjoyed the work -- or more precisely, those he worked with. He relished the friendship formed with men who were down-to-earth, family-oriented and God-fearing. Separated from the world above, they had to rely on each other every day.

Leslie understood both the job's draw and its dangers. Her father, Thomas Foy, had been a coal miner since before she was born, and he and her husband now worked for the same outfit: Black Wolf Coal Co. Since March 10, they'd been working on the same crew.

Every day before leaving for the mine, Mayhugh would give his wife a goodbye kiss.

But on this Wednesday, she was still out back, finishing yard work they'd started together earlier, and he didn't have time. So he waved and called out, "I love you, honey." Then he was gone.

Thomas Foy, Mayhugh's 52-year-old father-in-law, had 29 years of experience in the mines. Foy lived near his native Berlin, where he had dropped out of high school. He served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and worked laying brick before going into coal. He'd been a miner practically the entire time he'd been married to Denise, a Confluence girl he'd met one night at Somerset's Summit Diner.

Aug. 5 would be the Foys' 30th anniversary, and Aug. 7 would be the Mayhughs' 10th, so the two couples were looking forward to taking a short trip together for a long weekend beginning Aug. 9.

Leslie was the first of the Foys' four daughters, all of whom now are in their 20s and living near them. The good-natured Foy doted on them all, and especially on his seven grandchildren, including two sets of twins. Still, he was likely to tell everyone to clear out when a NASCAR race came on TV, because he loved car racing.

He stands just under 5 feet tall, and that's how he got the name used by all his mine co-workers and friends -- "Tucker" -- as in the nursery rhyme "Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper."

Foy -- an avid hunter famous among family and neighbors for his deer bologna -- was trying to lose some weight. Four years back, he'd suffered a heart attack and had angioplasty to open clogged vessels.

On his way to work that afternoon, he drove his red pickup truck to the take-out window at the East End Tavern, where his wife works as a cook.

He'd always stop by or call. That afternoon she leaned out the window and asked if she should bring him home anything to eat that night, and he said no.

"I'm going to work now, hon," he told her.

She said, "I'll see you later."

The guys called John Unger "Ung." He lived just 12 miles down the road from the mine on 80 secluded acres folded into the hills along a meandering two-lane road. Just over the rise from the family farm where he grew up, the ruddy, round-faced 52-year-old raises corn, oats, hay and 30 head of beef cattle. He and his wife, Sue, also raised a pair of children here, both grown and moved away now -- one to Atlanta, one to the outskirts of Butler.

PRAYERS ANSWERED: Mary Unger, 87, prayed at her Hollsopple, Somerset County, home for the more than three days for the safe rescue of her son, John, 52, right, and his eight fellow miners from flooded Quecreek Mine. The waiting, she said at the time "was awful," particularly when rescue efforts kept hitting snags. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Unger has been a miner for 28 years, and during that time has worked for seven coal companies. He liked weeks like this one, when he could carve out a regular weekend. On daylight shift, he and his crew would work six days. But the every-other-week swing shift of 3 to 11 p.m. meant the crew would have both Saturday and Sunday off.

That afternoon, Unger savored the prospect as he talked with a friend about going out Saturday to get his deer-hunting license. They looked over a rifle to which the friend has just attached a new scope.

But it was getting toward 3 o'clock. "Later," Unger told the friend, and hit the road.

After knocking around various laborer jobs, 36-year-old John Phillippi, known as "Flathead," had been happy to enter the mines in 1990 because it was the best paying job he could find, earning him about $40,000 a year with overtime. He found the work interesting and his co-workers to be kindred souls. Besides, he was the son of a retired miner.

He lived in a bucolic section of Boswell in a blue barn-shaped home with his wife, Melisa, and 12-year-old son. That afternoon, he shared a lunch of pizza dogs--hot dogs with pizza sauce--with his son. Then, he jumped into his car at 2:20 to head for work.

Robert Pugh was "Boogie," a nickname his grandfather gave him. The 50-year-old lived by himself in a red brick house in Boswell, having divorced 11 years ago. That marriage gave him three now-grown children: A teacher daughter and a daughter training to be a psychologist, both in North Carolina, and a golf pro son in Maryland. His longtime girlfriend, Cindy Thomas, lived five miles away.

A wrestling champion and all-county football center for Jenner Boswell High School, Pugh went into the mines -- like his dad, like his brother -- the year he graduated in 1970. He considered everyone on his crew to be a friend, and often hung out with some of them outside the mine. Two of his favorite things in the world involved hunting: Turkeys and ginseng roots.

On this day, Pugh got up around 8 a.m. and ripped up the carpet in his living room so he could replace it. Then he ate a TV dinner and left for the mine.

On the crew, Mark Popernack was "Moe." A thin 41-year-old with a brushed-back thatch of black hair, he was a 21-year veteran of the mines. He lived with his wife and two sons -- ages 9 and 10 -- in a single-story house on an isolated piece of ground past the northwest edges of Somerset, with a well-tended sweep of yard on one side, a reservoir dubbed Troll Lake on the other and serenity all around.

On that afternoon, Popernack tinkered around some outside, careful not to tap out energy he'd need for his eight-hour shift in the mine.

Another crew member, 49-year-old Ron Hileman, was a 26-year veteran of the mines whom his co-workers called "Hound Dog." Lean, with a hefty, well-groomed gray mustache, he is the father of three grown children, and his wife runs a day care center in their home in the village of Gray. Right before leaving for work that day, he grabbed a jug of water.

Almost 49, Dennis Hall started mining at 19 and earned his nickname, "Harpo," a decade-and-a-half ago when he sported longish, curly hair. He knew the job was dangerous: A quarter-century ago, a cave-in trapped him for an hour in a northern Somerset County mine. On one job, a drill let loose and walloped him in the jaw, breaking his lower denture into six pieces and gashing his face.

That afternoon, he was in the mobile home park on the southern fringe of Johnstown where he lives with his wife of 23 years and two sons.

She packed his lunch pail with a corned beef sandwich.

The crew chief, or section foreman for this crew, was 44-year-old Randy Fogle, who lived with his wife, Annette, and two of their three children outside the village of Garrett on unpaved Fogletown Road. As you might expect, a lot of Fogles live along it.

The son and grandson of miners, he'd been around or in mines for most of his life, working at everything from miner to foreman to mine superintendent. He had additional training, too, as an emergency medical technician.

He loved mining coal. And he really liked this crew for being efficient, smart and flexible.

Not that there wasn't stress. For years, he'd suffered from chronic heartburn.

He didn't have a nickname. His crew just called him "boss."

The crew that night was supposed to number 10. Fogle said plans had called for them to be joined by their newest colleague, 21-year-old Roger Shaffer of Hollsopple, who'd been working with them for a few months.

Shaffer and his wife, Lacey, had acquired tickets to attend Ozzfest at the Post-Gazette Pavilion on July 7. But because Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy Osbourne's wife, had to undergo cancer surgery, the tour was postponed -- until July 24. So Shaffer took the night off and they went to the concert.

The nine members of the crew converged at Quecreek Mine around 2:30 p.m.

In the trailer where they would shower at the end of their shift, they changed into their mining gear: Thermal underwear, flannel shirts, blue overalls, rubber steel-toed boots, maybe a rain coat or rain pants or both as an extra layer against the dampness. The last things they pulled on were their knee pads and their miners' helmets, which had detachable lights that they could hook on their belts.

At about 2:45, the nine went outside and exchanged news with the departing day shift -- the usual chitchat about mine conditions and machinery.

One of the day-shift guys tossed in the usual see-you-later: "Have a good one, man."

Then, right at 3 p.m., the nine climbed onto the mantrip, a low battery-powered rail cart, for the half-hour ride to the coal seam they were working. It was 8,000 feet, or about 1 1/2 miles, from the mine's portal.

It didn't take the 4-foot-high mine shafts to make these guys feel close. After all, they sometimes saw more of each other than they did their own families. But inside the mine, they didn't work shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes they only passed each other as they worked different parts of the coal cuts.

On this day, Hileman and Unger worked together as one team, bolting the newly created mine roof to secure it so it wouldn't collapse. Fogle and Foy were the other bolting team. Pugh and Hall were car men, cleaning up debris. Mayhugh operated the scooper, a motorized vehicle with a bucket for picking up the mined coal and dumping it on a conveyor belt for transport out of the mine.

For half of the shift, Phillippi operated the remote-controlled continuous miner, a low-slung machine fronted by an 11 1/2-foot-wide cylinder with 100 teeth that grinds into the seam and chews out the coal.

Then, Popernack took over operation of the miner.

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