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Chapter Ten

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The aftermath

As Sunday evening approached, heralding a return to normalcy in Somerset County, most of the rescued men said their mining days were over, and it was hard to find anyone who faulted them for that.

GOOD TO BE HOME: Miner John Unger receives a hug from 8-year-old neighbor Cheyenne Alwine after returning home. Unger, fourth of the nine miners to be rescued, lives on a farm in Hollsopple in Somerset County. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"My husband said he'll never go into a mine again unless something like this happens again and he has to rescue someone else," said Foy's wife.

Hall was one of the few who said he might continue in the profession. Others said they might not have a choice, because it's all they've ever done.

The MicroPower Institute of Technology in New Kensington offered to retrain the miners for free in computer or systems repair. That would allow them to take jobs paying in the low to mid-$20,000 range, much less than they make now.

But more lucrative offers from movie studios and book publishers loomed.

Interest flowed in from Paramount Pictures, Columbia Tristar/Sony Pictures and the Walt Disney Co., which won the competition by wrapping up a $1 million-plus TV movie deal late last week.

Fogle said the miners have retained an attorney to deal with such matters.

Andy Glasscock, a sergeant in the Midland, Texas, police department, had a sense of what the miners might be experiencing with Hollywood. Glasscock was a central player in the dramatic 1987 rescue of 19-month-old Jessica McClure, who fell through an 8-inch-wide abandoned well opening.

Within a week after Jessica was rescued, producers came calling, Glasscock said, and the rescuers began to argue over how they were to be portrayed in a TV movie. Two months' of bickering divided the community.

"It was a disaster," Glasscock said. He suggested that the miners savor their rescue and not worry about "damn Hollywood."

As the Quecreek Nine fielded entertainment offers and questions about their future, miners outside the spotlight began descending into the very mine that had threatened their colleagues. Eric "Snook" Brant of Somerset was one of six miners who went into the entrance on Sunday night to start the long process of de-watering and refurbishing the mine.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little bit scary," Brant said.

The cleanup at the mine is expected to take several weeks, although progress was delayed on Thursday when the state ordered the pumping of water from the rescue site shut down because of excessive amounts of iron flowing into Quemahoning Creek. Those pumps will resume after treatment ponds are built, probably within three or four days. The pumping at the mine's entrance has not been stopped.

Investigators will not be able to get inside the mine until water levels recede significantly. State and federal investigations into why maps of the Saxman Mine were inaccurate have begun. And on Friday, two state lawmakers asked Attorney General Mike Fisher to convene a grand jury to look at possible criminal misconduct. Fisher said yesterday that it was too early to say whether there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing. He planned to inspect the mine today.

The mine, which has enough coal to support another 15 years of mining, is expected to open again when cleared to do so. In the meantime, all 63 employees -- except for the nine rescued last Sunday -- are back at work on the cleanup.

Still to be settled up is the bill for the rescue work, which may have exceeded $10 million. At this point, it's hard to know who will shoulder the cost, and how much of the effort was donated by individuals and companies.

Hundreds of curious onlookers went to the Arnold farm last week, parking their cars by an abandoned fruit stand across the road and walking down the paved narrow lane adjacent to the rescue scene. From there, they gazed at the mound of rocks covering the drill hole and admired the tiny American flag that had been placed on top.

Foy's younger brother, Wilbur, served as a volunteer guard at the site on Tuesday. He willingly spoke with onlookers who wanted to learn more about his brother. Pugh also came back to the site with his family Tuesday.

Unger stopped at the rescue scene in his pickup truck that day, after driving around "to see what I had missed" and stopping for an ice cream.

"I was just looking," he said, "and a lady there starts to tell me about these nine miners who were rescued there."

He listened for a moment, and then confided to the woman, "Ma'am, I was the fourth of nine."

Keith Bowser and his wife, Betty, came down to the rescue site from Butler on Wednesday. They asked Doug Custer, who escaped the mine early on and who was guarding the drill hole for the Black Wolf Coal Co., if they could take his photo. He said sure.

"I was a normal person before this, and I want to be a normal person after," Custer said.

Bowser said there ought to be a memorial at the site, but as of last week, there was none. Mark Zambanini, chief of the Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department, suggested that people simply put up a "Nine for nine" marker and then move on.

"Everybody did his job and now it's over," he said.

A taped interview with all the miners appeared on NBC's "Dateline" on Tuesday. During the interview, a few of the miners cried. Many shook their heads. When Randy Fogle brought out the muddy bucket that contained the men's final notes to their families, the miners swore it would never be opened.

Also that night, Schweiker appeared on "The Tonight Show." Some observers have likened Schweiker's actions during the crisis to those of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani after Sept. 11. But on Sunday, Schweiker -- sleep-deprived and still sporting jeans -- brushed aside the praise, saying he had overseen emergency management as lieutenant governor in the Ridge administration.

"International attention or not, it's been my job for eight years," he said.

The Quecreek experience, which raised his political profile, hasn't altered his plans to get out of the limelight. When a new governor is sworn in in January, Schweiker said he'll head back to Bucks County. "Kathy and I are waiting for the peace and calm associated with our private life."

But Steve MacNett, general counsel for Pennsylvania State Republicans, noted that Schweiker, at 49, is still young for politics.

"This probably increases his ability to return to elected politics down the road with a more established public identity than might have been beforehand," MacNett said.

A small American flag and a large rock lie atop Rescue Shaft Number One, the tunnel that was bored 240 feet into the earth to free the nine miners trapped in Quecreek Mine. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

President Bush also has been drawn to the drama of the mine rescue. While in Pittsburgh tomorrow for a fund-raiser, Bush will meet with all nine miners.

As for preserving the memory of the incident, the Windber Coal Heritage Center in nearby Windber plans to add a permanent exhibition on the Quecreek rescue, said Chris Barkley, the center's director.

The center, which features exhibits of a model mine community and how early miners lived, is attempting to obtain the telephone used to communicate with the trapped miners, as well as other objects involved in the rescue and news articles from newspapers around the country.

Charles Fox, director of the Somerset Historical Center, just a half-mile from the rescue site, said he's been asked about what place the accident will have in history. But he declined to answer.

"We're all rushing to put historical significance on an event that's still happening," he said. "The same thing happened with Sept. 11. But also like Sept. 11, this event has reminded people of what's important -- relationships, friends, family."

Fox said the miners set a good example when they were in their darkest moments: "They kept their wits about them, worked together, and decided to survive or fail as a group. And no one above ground was asking 'Who's going to pay for this?' or 'What am I going to get out of it?' They just did it because it needed to be done."

In getting the job done, however, the rescuers didn't just save nine men, and the miners didn't just save themselves.

Together, they delivered to the public the kind of happy ending it so rarely gets to savor.




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