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Chapter Three

Sunday, August 04, 2002

The Breach

Routine turned to mayhem in two seconds flat. About 245 feet underground, Popernack was running the continuous miner machine, the steel teeth of its 11 1/2-foot-wide cylinder spinning and chewing into walls of coal. He was working near the sixth of seven pathways cleared into the mine.

He knew it was about quarter til 9 at night, two hours from the end of a shift that seemed like any other.

Click on image to download a .pdf graphic describing the flooding of the mine shaft from the adjoining Saxman works. (Note file size: 1,094K).

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

But five minutes later, the machine chipped straight through a wall that was supposed to be hundreds of feet thick. It had broken into the adjacent, abandoned Saxman Mine No. 2, unleashing more than 150 million gallons of groundwater into Quecreek.

"Everybody out!" screamed Foy, fear in his voice. "We hit an old section! There's a lot of water!"

Inaccurate maps had falsely led the men to believe they weren't anywhere near the old mine. In the half-century since it had been emptied of coal, the Saxman Mine had become a subterranean reservoir.

Hileman and Unger were about 100 feet away, up a crosscut. Their machinery and ear protection covered the roar of the torrent and Foy's scream. But then they saw the water.

In a second, maybe two, water that had been gushing from the hole exploded through the wall, washing over Popernack's miner machine and carrying off another 5-ton piece of equipment called a load-center.

"Harpo! Get the hell out! Get out now! Get out now!" Popernack screamed to Hall, who was right behind him in an 18-foot, electric-powered shuttle car loaded with the coal Popernack's miner had cut from the walls.

Hall heard the warning and seconds later drove away, maybe 210 feet through the coal cuts, before the car died when the power feeding it was knocked out by the water.

Popernack jumped away from the mining machine, saving his life momentarily, but nearly dooming himself to die alone.

The instant flood created a furious river, cutting off Popernack from his coworkers and spoiling to suck him under and whisk him away if he stepped into it. The orange water roared, drowning out shouts among the men.

In a space barely 4 feet high and with only the light from their headlamps to guide them, the miners on the other side of the torrent began their desperate race to get out.

The water thundered down Entry No. 6, then broke off, filling other entries and cross cuttings.

Amid the fury came the first move that saved lives. Foy and Fogle yelled at Hall, who was nearest the mine phone, to call the second crew of nine in another part of the mine.

Having ditched the shuttle car, Hall ran about 70 feet to the mine phone and tried to warn those working in a lower section farther away from the break.

Nobody answered. Maybe the machinery was too loud. Maybe nobody saw the flashing light by the phone. Forty seconds seemed to stretch into forever until Hall heard a voice, but not from the mine. The miner who was stationed on the surface for emergency purposes had picked up the phone. Hall was telling him what had happened, when one of the second crew also picked up. To him, Hall screamed:

"Get out! Get out, goddamn it, get out! You got major water!"

Word of the water spread quickly through the second crew. They were roughly 3,000 to 5,000 feet away from Hall's group.

THE FIRST HERO: As the rush of water blasted into the Quecreek Mine, Dennis Hall Jr., 49, raced to the phone and warned nine other men to get out, saving them from certain death even as his own life was in peril. One of those men would later ask Hall why he did it. "I had to. I had to. I had to," Hall said. (V.H.W.Campbell, Jr., Post-Gazette)

"Shut everything down," a crew member yelled to miner Doug Custer, 45, of Berlin in Somerset County. "We're getting out of here!"

Joe Kostyk, 42, of Salix in Cambria County, was running the continuous miner when the call came in.

He, Custer and three others immediately piled into the mantrip, and started driving out the common entry tunnel, picking up a sixth crew member along the way. Two other crew members were two minutes ahead in a golf cart. Another was somewhere else in the mine.

The men in the mantrip met water within five minutes. It sloshed up over the sides of the buggy, which the men had to abandon because the water already was too deep, at a foot-and-a-half. The guys in the golf cart had to ditch it, too.

They escaped through a door down into another passageway. Now on foot, Custer and his co-workers kept looking at the cement-block walls, trying to gauge the water's height. When they saw water coming up over of the top of the blocks, they knew the water was at least 4 feet high in the adjacent entry tunnel.

When they made their way over into the Entry No. 6 tunnel, a swift, cold current was there to meet them -- knocking them down as if they were rag dolls. The water, about 20 feet across, was only a little over 2 feet high, but for men walking crouched in a cramped, 4-foot-high space, it was up to their chests. They had to get across it.

Custer, a roof bolter, thought he was about to die. For all they knew, death lay ahead, even if they made it across. But they would have met certain death had they not traversed the torrent.

Three crew members made it across ahead of them. Custer and Kostyk made their way through the channel. Then, they yelled back for the rest to follow. When the other four made it over, Kostyk felt a bit better because they were heading uphill, to higher ground.

And at that point, it was dry. They walked back over to Entry No. 5 tunnel and met up with two members of their crew who had gotten out ahead of them and were driving a golf cart to freedom. The six jumped onto the cart -- two on the front fender, two in the middle and two in the back -- and all eight rode out of the mine. The ninth crew member already was out, trying to reach Hall's crew by mine phone.

The men were clear of the water within 15 to 20 minutes, but because of the distance, it took them 45 minutes to get completely out of the mine.

Once outside, they notified the mine owner and mine foreman, but waved off medical treatment for themselves, all the while looking back for lights or any signs of the first crew.

There were none.

Back at the breach, the first crew had begun its attempt to escape only after realizing they couldn't take Popernack with them. He screamed at them to save themselves. The roar of the water swallowed his words.

In the dark, Popernack shook his head, and the beam from his helmet light swept back and forth. He didn't think he could make it. He figured he'd probably die there.

Using their safety training, the other eight converged at Entry No. 4, at the conveyor belt that moved the mined coal out of the shaft. They prayed this was their way out.

The rush down the passageway toward the mine mouth was at full bore. The men raced through the water, grabbing the coal conveyor to keep from falling, from going down in water too violent to ever let them get to their feet.

In the passageway, 4 1/2 feet high in places, they ran as fast as stooped men could run. But because they were hunkered down as they ran, the water -- now 3 to 3 1/2 feet-deep -- was reaching their necks.

Unger wasn't sure how long he could continue the pace. He thought he was on the verge of a heart attack.

When the water got to be too much, they hopped on the conveyor -- which had stopped when the water cut its power -- and crawled along it. They scrambled across coal on the conveyor, falling, bloodying their knuckles, and realizing that the water blocking their way was rising toward them.

As Hall rushed to the conveyor and joined the race to get out, the water nearly took him under. Fogle was running right behind him.

When Hall tried to clamber onto the conveyor but couldn't, Fogle, at 200-plus pounds, grabbed all 180 pounds of Hall by the coveralls and tossed him aboard the stilled conveyor.

Somewhere in the din, Hileman called out, "Can we make it?"

The two youngest, Phillippi and Mayhugh, had led the struggle down the conveyor for about 2,000 feet.

As they looked forward, their helmet lamps illuminated their worst fear -- 100 feet ahead, the water had gotten so high it was hitting the roof. The water had outrun them down entries 5, 6 and 7 and now was enveloping them.

The two young miners yelled at their fellow crew members to turn back.

The water, now at chin level, was so overpowering the men had to pull on the conveyor as they fought to reach higher ground.

And at one point, Foy turned to his son-in-law, Mayhugh, with the saddest eyes the younger man had ever seen.

"We're in trouble," the veteran miner told him.

"I know, Tom," Mayhugh responded. "I'm too young to die. I'm not afraid to but I got two little kids. This ain't the way for us to go."

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