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Chapter Five

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Desperate to survive

Before the miners were able to signal the surface that they were alive, they had a fierce struggle ahead of them.

Just after they had reversed direction on the conveyer belt, they managed to move back up the beltway as they headed for higher ground. Still, the water rose to their chins. Walking hunched over in the 4-foot high shaft, they now had to crane their necks back to keep their faces above the water.

Click image to download a .pdf graphic illustrating the struggle of the nine trapped miners to survive in the flooding Quecreek Mine as rescuers rushed to try and reach them in time. (File size: 462K)

You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the .pdf, available as a free download from Adobe

Every now and then they would veer off to cross shafts, but everywhere they turned there was water. At long last, they got to an area high enough that they no longer had to struggle to keep their heads above water.

There, Fogle tried to beat a hole with a mason's hammer through a cement block wall to gain entrance into another passageway, possibly a way out. He pounded as hard as he could until he exhausted himself. Phillippi and Mayhugh took over and ran out of gas themselves. Another miner picked up the hammer but by then the water had risen over their heads again and they had to move to even higher ground.

Still alone, Popernack rigged a hose under his armpits as a harness, wondering if he could tape hooks to his hands and somehow get across the raging river, clinging to roof bolts to steady himself. He was desperate.

Suddenly, he saw a light. It was from Phillippi's helmet lamp in a passageway across the water from him. The rest of the crew returned there, too.

"Get me over with you guys!" Popernack shouted.

"I can't," Fogle told him. "The water's too fast. We'll have to wait for it to slow down."

Before long, it slowed just enough for Fogle to steer a small highlift called a scooper into the torrent, slowly easing it forward into water that could easily grab it and carry it off.

"Randy, be careful about what you do," Hall told him. "The water takes it, it's gone."

With the scooper's bucket raised above the rushing water, Fogle yelled to Popernack, "Jump!" And Popernack, the lightest of the crew, leaped into the bucket. Fogle eased the scooper backward. The nine miners were once again all together--but together in much danger.

So dire was the situation at that point that the sole advantage, it seemed, was that they would be together when they died.

But the miners figured that help was trying to get to them. They heard drilling.

Early Thursday morning, at five of six entries that had been dug through the earth to get at the coal, they tried building dikes with the cement blocks they normally use in their work. Their plan was to shield themselves from the water in a 100-foot by 150-foot rectangle.

It was hard, frantic work and they were breathing low-oxygen air, called black damp, that had poured in from Saxman.

"Is it just me? I can't breathe," Mayhugh said. He and Unger vomited. Everyone was struggling, some so much they couldn't work anymore.

But then, at 5:10 a.m., their spirits soared when a six-inch drill cut into Entry No. 4, where the conveyor belt was located, and a pipe dropped down. They repeatedly tapped on the pipe -- eventually in a sequence of nine -- to indicate all were alive. And then heated, compressed air came roaring through the pipe, providing them with much needed oxygen.

The air was being pumped at such a high rate that the roar deafened them and hurt their ears. But they could put up with the discomfort; the pipe meant rescuers knew where they were.

Gov. Mark Schweiker and Dave Lauriski, asistant secretary of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, looking over the rescue operation at the Arnold Farm above the Quecreek Mine. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Still, the foul-smelling water rose foot by foot toward them, eventually covering the air shaft, muffling the sound and giving them some relief. But it also prevented from pounding on the pipe, so they began to rap on the rock ceiling further away -- nine taps every 10 minutes--hoping someone using specialized listening equipment would hear them.

By noon Thursday, they had completed four cinder block walls, but it was all to no avail. The water overtook them as they worked on the fifth. They had to retreat to the highest ground, about 300 feet from the airshaft, near Entry No. 1. There they would wait for what seemed the inevitable as the water rose closer and closer to them.

The water lapped 70 feet away. It was moving too quickly. Fogle, their leader, gave it to them straight: In another hour, he estimated, all of them would be dead.

The men knew he was right. They had to be realistic. There was quiet. There were tears. There were silent prayers.

Mayhugh pulled out a pen, grabbed a piece of cardboard from the ground and wrote a note to his wife and kids, telling him he loved them. He dumped out drill bits from a white plastic bucket, put in the note and offered the pen to everyone else.

Every man did the same, writing their good-byes to loved ones. When nine notes were inside the bucket, the airtight lid was snapped on and the bucket was lashed to a boulder so it would be found.

Foy then grabbed a 3/16 inch, plastic coated steel cable from the materials normally cast around a working mine. He looped it onto their miners belts, saying that if they would die they would do so as a team, as a family. This way, their bodies wouldn't be scattered through the mine.

Popernack and Unger weren't ready yet to tie in. They wanted to wait until the water was closer.

Hall wanted no part of it at all, disdaining the thought of listening to his friends choking and drowning. He figured that when the water was about to cover him, he'd simply take a last breath, dive in and surface where the water was at the roof, where he had nothing left to breathe.

The humor was black.

BATTLING FOR TIME: While workers struggle to pump out the water engulfing the Quecreek Mine, Joseph Sbaffoni, bituminous mining field operations chief with the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, on the left, briefs DEP Secretary David Hess about the massive rig summoned from West Virginia to drill an escape chute for the trapped miners. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

"How are we going to die?" one of the miners asked Unger.

"I don't know," he replied. "I could hit you on the head with a rock or else you could just drown."

Their spirit, bodies, minds exhausted, they settled in on an 18-by-30-foot damp patch of earth to await their fate.

An hour passed. They were still alive. Where was the water?

It seemed to have stopped its fatal advance. To confirm their hopes, Fogle put a stick in the mud to mark the water's edge and lashed a light bulb to it to act as a bobber in case the stick was inundated. The water didn't rise.

No longer resigned to the inevitability of death, they followed Fogle's orders and switched to rescue mode. Maybe they could hang on until help arrived. They continued to pound on the roof. They turned off their helmet lamps to conserve power. Every 10 minutes one or two of them would switch on their lamps to check the water level.

They were also fighting the cold. They covered themselves with canvas but it didn't help a lot. They were drenched and the mine temperature was only in the 50s. They sat back-to-back for warmth or lay on the ground, sandwiching teammates who would sometimes shake violently with chills. When spirits dipped, others would pick them up, often with humor.

The one who was consistently upbeat was crew chief Fogle. He took to heart that he was their leader, that it was his responsibility to bring up every man he led into a mine.

When one of them would say, "We're going to die," he was defiant.

"No!" he said. "Don't even let it enter your heads! We're getting out of here somehow, someway!"

Such resolve steeled the crew. So reliant were the eight miners on Fogle's leadership that they became dispirited when halfway through the ordeal he began coughing, throwing up and complaining of chest pains. He said it was only the oily fumes from the compressed air aggravating his heartburn. They weren't sure.

Despite his physical ailments, he never flagged in his belief they would survive.

That's why no one initially believed him when he returned from the water's edge to report it was receding.

"Don't be bullshitting us," they all said.

"I think it's going down," Fogle insisted. And it was.

For long stretches, the men lay quietly in the darkness. Few slept for long. When they talked, they discussed anything they could think of, from what they'd do when they got out -- attend a family reunion, one said -- to their favorite foods, which were porterhouse steaks, T-bones and ribs. Popernack asked his shivering crewmates what they would choose if they could -- snuff, beer or a hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate won.

Pugh, a snuff user for 35 years, had shared his tin of Timberwolf with his co-workers after theirs ran out. He tried to stave off the nicotine craving by thinking of things that made him happy -- like bagging an 18-pound turkey on May 18. He thought that, even if he died, at least he had gotten that bird.

They had been staring in the dark for so long that Pugh started to believe that he could see his feet in the pitch blackness. And then Hileman said he could see his feet, too. The others told them they were crazy.

"I can even see a sky with stars, and a little town with houses and trees," Pugh responded.

At one point, Hall's lunch pail was discovered floating about 100 feet from them. Inside, they found the corned beef sandwich his wife made him, still dry, and a bottle of Pepsi, to supplement the 12 gallons of distilled water they had salvaged that normally was used for machine batteries. Every man took a bite of the sandwich except for Mayhugh, who figured the bite wasn't enough to end any of his craving for food, and Unger, who was afraid he'd vomit it up from the tension.

At another point, Foy went scavenging and found two Mountain Dews on one of their machines.

They could hear the drilling getting nearer, brightening their hopes. And then at 1:50 a.m. Friday it stopped. Silence.

"Dear God, they gave up on us," Hall thought. "Dear God, please don't let them think we're dead and give up on us."

The others feared the same--except Fogle, their optimistic leader.

"Ah, they might have plugged up. Ah, they might have broken a bit," he said.

Fogle reassured the others that drilling would surely begin again.

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