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Chapter Eight

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Breakthrough!

The breakthrough came Saturday at 10:15 p.m.

After days of effort and a broken bit, the rescue drill punched through into the trapped miners' dank quarters. The drill rig operator pumped his fist in the air, then jumped up and started yelling. The escape shaft, through which the capsule carrying the miners to safety would travel, was finally in place.

ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Rescue workers cheer and applaud when Blaine Mayhugh is pulled to safety. Just 15 minutes later, Mayhugh's father-in-law Tom Foy, also would be rescued. Mayhugh landed a guest spot on David Letterman last week, and there he drew wild cheers and applause from the audience. (Marty Ginter, Commonwealth Media Services)

The moment of breakthrough -- the instant people above ground had waited for like 1969 America waited for the astronauts' first steps on the moon -- initially wasn't noticed by the miners, 24 stories underground.

They had been taking turns every 10 or 15 minutes walking 250 feet down the passageway to pound nine times on the 6-inch air pipe and check the area where the drilling sounds were coming from.

Saturday at 10:15 p.m., Hileman and Foy made the trek. Their cap lamps were dim and just about out of juice.

That's when they found the drill opening.

Back on high ground, the other miners were lying down, trying to stave off the cold, when Hileman came bounding back.

"We found the hole!" he screamed. "Everyone get down there!"

No one needed a second invitation. They bolted toward Entry No. 4 with energy they never knew they had.

Hileman then found Unger, who was separated from the rest of the group. "You want to go home tonight, John?" he asked casually.

"Yes, I wouldn't mind going," Unger replied.

"Well, grab your stuff," Hileman yelled. "We found the hole!"

Mayhugh unbuckled his mining belt as he ran toward the hole. He knew he'd never use it again.

The drill had touched down about 300 feet away, across two crosscuts.

When the miners got there, they began yelling, "Get us out! Help us! Please get us out."

Back above ground, rescue workers took a pressure reading at the top of the big hole and got a zero, indicating that the pressure below was normal and they wouldn't need to use the customized airlock.

Then they heard tapping.

The rescue workers, knowing a pool of reporters and photographers had been allowed to enter the drill site, tried not to show any emotion. They didn't want to violate Schweiker's edict that the miners' families should learn of any developments first. By radio, a worker tersely asked someone from the command center to join them -- fast.

Yet they couldn't contain their joy. They began high-fiving each other and smiling.

After getting the radio message, Kevin Stricklin, a federal mine safety official, ran out to the site thinking someone was hurt. When he heard the miners were alive, his heart pounded.

Nearby, Rob Zaremski, who had been on site for more than a day, had been waiting to use a special pen-shaped, two-way communication probe -- the CON-SPACE Rescue Probe -- developed by his company, Targeting Customer Safety.

He was thrilled when a DEP official told him to bring his equipment to the site.

The probe, containing a speaker and microphone housed in a stainless steel compartment, would send sounds to Zarem-ski's headset.

Wearing a yellow hard hat, Zaremski slowly lowered the probe into the 6-inch air pipe. He had attached a child's glow stick to it so it would be visible in the dark mine.

After the probe had descended 75 feet, he began saying, "Stay where you are. Can you hear me?"

At 100 or 125 feet, Zaremski thought he heard people saying, "I can hear you." But he didn't know whether it was people topside thinking he was doing a sound check.

Then, unmistakably, he heard, "We can hear you."

Phillippi was at the other end of the device, speaking into the slender microphone.

To Zaremski, hearing the voice was like saying a prayer and hearing God answer. Surprised, he asked three more times if the person could hear him, just to be sure.

Ray McKinney, the federal mine safety administrator, fed Zaremski the next questions.

"Are you the trapped miners?"

"Yes, we are."

"Are you OK?"

"We're OK except for our boss is having chest pains."

That's when Zaremski gave the thumbs up captured on TV and sent around the world.

"How many are you?"

"We're all nine here," came the reply.

Zaremski raised nine fingers and grinned. As word spread up the hill from the rescue site, small spontaneous celebrations broke out.

Word of the breakthrough quickly spread through a media-briefing area five miles from Somerset, even before the governor had confirmed it.

Eager to share the news with the miners' families, Black Wolf Coal Co. executives John Weir and Dave Rebuck jumped into a waiting state police car.

"Give them the road," an officer said as they sped away. "Get them there."

At the Sipesville fire hall, Schweiker joined Weir and Rebuck. Their grins telegraphed the news.

All nine were alive. All nine were in pretty good shape, they told the families.

The hall exploded in cheers, applause and shouts of "Praise the Lord!" which didn't stop for 10 minutes.

Miner John Unger's son, Stephen Unger of Atlanta, had never seen people so emotional, and the 25-year-old had never cried so hard in his life.

Denise Foy, the wife of Tom Foy, tried not to show her emotions. Every time she had cried before, her four daughters had cried, too -- especially Leslie Mayhugh, wife of Blaine Mayhugh.

When the good news came that nine were alive, she just grabbed her daughter and squeezed.

Officials asked the families whether it would be OK to broadcast the rescues live. Foy was the second person to raise her hand indicating, "Yes." She thought people around the world had a right to see what their prayers had done.

Back at the site, Phillippi asked Zaremski, "What took you guys so long?"

McKinney grabbed the headset from Zaremski.

"Who am I speaking to?" McKinney asked.

"This is John," Phillippi replied.

McKinney was so happy, he wouldn't have minded if Phillippi had said his name was Greta.

"Are all nine at the same location?"

They were.

Phillippi asked for flashlights, food, cap lamps, snuff and chewing tobacco. He also told McKinney the drill had deposited a pile of dirt that would have to be moved away from the opening for the rescue capsule to drop through.

After inquiring about their health, to make sure no one's life was in danger, McKinney told the miner the rescue capsule would be coming down the shaft.

Phillippi told McKinney the largest person in the mine was almost 6 feet and 230 pounds.

Earlier, McKinney had spotted a large rescue worker -- 6-feet-3 and 310 pounds. McKinney had asked him to climb into and out of the rescue capsule. He was able to do it. If he fit, McKinney thought, surely the largest of the nine miners would, too.

Now, McKinney handed the headset to Dr. Richard Kunkle of the medical response team. He asked about injuries and took medical histories of the men.

Phillippi again asked for snuff and chewing tobacco. Kunkle agreed as long as Fogle, who had been suffering chest pains, didn't use any of the tobacco.

At another point, mine owner Rebuck telephoned down his own message to miner Hall.

"Hey Denny, you're a hero," he said. "Your phone call saved those nine other guys."

Hall, who for 78 hours hadn't known the fate of the other crew, cried when he heard the news.

Finally, it was time to send down the steel mesh rescue capsule -- an 8 1/2-foot high cylinder with lantern lights attached at the bottom.

On its first trip, it carried flashlights, cap lamps, Hershey and Kit Kat candy bars, blankets, raincoats, drinking water, glow lights, Skoal and Copenhagen snuff and Mail Pouch tobacco.

After it got there, Pugh packed so much snuff between his cheek and gum and wolfed down so many candy bars he felt dizzy.

Up top, another miner at the site joked with the trapped nine, telling them their families had been told they were alive and "most of them are happy about it."

Then, federal mining official Jeffrey Kravitz took the headset to decide the order in which the miners would be raised to the surface.

They were told to put Fogle on first, something the miners already had agreed to among themselves. After that, they would come up in order from the heaviest to lightest. The last person had to be the smallest because he wouldn't have anyone to help him get in the capsule.

As the rescue operation got under way, the news of the miners' miraculous survival spread far and wide.

At Buffalo Blues restaurant in Shadyside, the bar erupted in a huge cheer when people realized the miners were safe.

When members of the Somerset High School class of '67, who were having their reunion at the Oakhurst Tea Room, learned of the imminent rescue, the 90 class members abandoned the ballroom and the DJ and headed to the bar to watch the rescue on television.

At the fire hall, e-mail began to arrive.

A woman whose firefighter nephew was killed at the World Trade Center wrote, "Please relay to [the miners] and their families that they were never alone. All of Brooklyn, NY was with them in prayer... Now they are prayers of thanks."

Even the press area erupted with joy, as journalists forgot they were supposed to be jaded and coolly neutral.

The first reporter on the scene, the Somerset Daily American's Kozuch, cried when she heard the news.

Pamela Mayer, the publisher of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, had never before worked on a breaking news story with a happy ending. She wasn't even going to complain about the overtime.

And Fox News' Geraldo Rivera out Geraldo-ed himself, gushing as he delivered the news. He hugged the men he interviewed and kissed the women. He even called Schweiker "Dude."

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