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Chapter Nine

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Up, safe and sound

The medical workers breathed sighs of relief as some of their biggest concerns vanished. The water level in the mine had dropped, simultaneously reducing the air pressure, so the untested airlock that had been invented and built on the spot would not be needed. Instead, it would be donated to federal mining officials for study and possible future use.

JUBILATION: An animated Gov. Mark Schweiker talks to the press at 3:30 a.m., just 45 minutes after the last miner was rescued from the Quecreek Mine. Schweiker drew on his years of experience as head of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to become a force behind the rescue and the face at the frontlines. "There was no red tape when he was around," said Black Wolf owner Dave Rebuck. "Without him it would not have gotten done." Behind Schweiker is Dr. Richard Kunkle, of the Special Medical Response Team, who evaluated each man as he was brought up. In the foreground is the poster board where each man's name, age and time of rescue was listed. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

And the miners were alert and able-bodied, so they could climb into the 22-inch diameter rescue capsule without help.

Through the communications person on the surface, medical team leader Danny Sacco gave instructions as each miner rose through the 240-foot drill shaft. What's your name? What's the worst thing wrong with you? Don't try to get out by yourself.

Sacco, standing at the bore hole, greeted them with a "welcome home" as he and another rescuer helped them out of the capsule. Some replied, "It's good to be home."

Fogle, who had complained of chest pain, would be the first to surface, at 12:50 a.m. As with those to follow, the whites of his eyes shone from a face black with coal dust.

They looked like drowned rats, Sacco said. But that didn't mean the miners had crouched in water during their entire ordeal. Instead, the drill shaft had gone through an aquifer, drenching the miners in yet another torrent of cold water in their final exits. After discovering what had happened to Fogle, raincoats were sent down the capsule to shield the others.

The other eight miners were brought up according to weight, heaviest to lightest.

Mayhugh was second. The others helped him squeeze into the tight-fitting capsule. Groundwater poured down so heavily that he had trouble breathing. He couldn't hold the microphone nor keep the headphones on. He could hardly hear the rescuers. He'd had enough.

"Get me the hell up and I mean now! Let's go!" he shouted.

Once the capsule began its ascent, Mayhugh calmed down. About 3 feet from the surface, he could see the bright lights, could hear the applause and cheering.

His heart raced and he began to cry. On the surface, everything was a blur until he was placed on a stretcher. Schweiker leaned over him. "I just talked to your dad 10 minutes ago," the smiling governor said. "He told me, 'Get my son out of there.' "

Mayhugh's father-in-law, Foy, was the next one out. Unger, Phillippi, Hileman and Hall followed.

Then came Pugh, already a little dizzy from the Hershey bars and the snuff.

But even more disorienting were all the lights and cheering as he, second to last, rose to the surface. "It just gave me a feeling like the Steelers won the Super Bowl."

Popernack, at 2:45 a.m., was the last man out.

Sacco's counterparts elsewhere later told him that the transfer of miners from the capsule to the treatment units was so smooth it looked rehearsed. It was. Sipesville firefighters and medical team members had trained for the transfers before the rescue.

The miners could not be jostled on the journey from the drill site up the hill to the decontamination unit and beyond because bumps can trigger heart rhythm problems in abnormally cold patients. Physicians Kunkle and Dixon took turns escorting stretchers, in case an emergency occurred.

Rescuers at the drill site brought up the miners in 15-minute intervals rather than the two hours each that had been predicted. Soon, the medic team had to hightail it back down the hill to pick up the next miner after dropping one off at the treatment stations.

A Somerset company had organized the efficient decontamination procedure, in which clothes were cut off and special detergents were used to wash away the oily, flammable coal dust, even from their ear canals. The residue would be dangerous in the potentially explosive environment of a hyperbaric chamber.

Each miner was assessed by a physician and a physician's assistant. A nurse started an intravenous line to deliver fluids. Vital signs, an EKG and a reading of blood oxygen content were taken. A Navy corpsman did an exam solely to check each miner for the bends.

It turned out that none of the miners needed the pressurized chambers at the drill site. Instead, the miners were transferred either by helicopter, flying at low altitude to diminish pressure problems, or by ambulance to hospitals.

Fogle, Foy, Unger, Phillippi, Hall and Pugh were sent to Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown. Mayhugh, Hileman and Popernack went to Somerset Hospital.

Dr. Russell Dumire, a trauma surgeon, waited on the helipad at Conemaugh to escort the first patient to the emergency room. He has performed surgery in a hyperbaric chamber and is a diver, and his grandfather was a mine engineer who performed rescues. Dumire happened to be the surgeon on call that weekend.

The medical staff was thrilled to find the miners were smiling, alert and talking. They also were shivering. They had been wrapped in warm, dry covers after the decontamination, but by the time they got to the hospital, residual water on their bodies became almost ice cold and the blankets were saturated.

"They were freezing cold," Dumire said. Fingers, feet and lower legs were purple and mottled from immersion. "It looked like if you rubbed real hard against their feet, you could rub the skin right off."

The lowest body temperature the medical staff found was about 92.5 degrees, the warmest at 96.8. Normal is 98.6.

Riggger Tim Martin walks past the empty escape capsule early Sunday, July 28, 2002 in Somerset, Pa. after nine miners were pulled one-by-one from the watery, 240-foot-deep shaft where they had been trapped for three days, a jubilant reward for an effort that had been fraught with one gut-wrenching setback after another.(AP Photo/Cesar Laure, pool)

The hospital staff replaced cold, wet blankets with dry ones at their backs and bearhugger wraps in front to envelop them in heat. A second IV was started to push more warm fluid into their systems.

After that, they were moved to another area of the emergency room to wait for transfer to a hospital ward. It was there that each miner was reunited with his family.

"They were huge groups," Dumire recalled. "Some had 12 to 15 family members."

Pugh was overcome in what he called the "drama room" -- the trauma room at Conemaugh -- when his girlfriend, Cindy Thomas, and relatives rushed in, as he put it, "like a herd of cattle."

"I only cried twice in my life -- when my son was born, and that day there."

Denise Foy said that when she finally got to see her husband, "He just grabbed my hand and we started kissing. We didn't really say nothing."

The Foys' daughter, Leslie, got to Somerset Hospital 10 minutes after her husband, Blaine Mayhugh, arrived there. They embraced, making up for that kiss he'd neglected to give her days before.

Back at the drill site, euphoria had set in. Mine owner Rebuck hugged the people at the rescue site. He hugged the people at the mine site.

"Once I knew we had nine guys, I sat down and watched. This is history and I'm going to enjoy this," said federal mining official Stricklin. "There wasn't a rescue worker on the site who didn't cry. I'm sitting there thinking, 'Life is good' and I'm about ready to start singing that Kumbaya song. I wanted to bottle that moment and never have it end."

Joining him on a row of hay bales were fellow federal official Urosek and state mining expert Sbaffoni.

"It was just so great... all nine guys," Urosek said. "Joe Gallo [a PBS engineer] had done a lion's share of the work and I thought he was going to pass out."

"We shook, we hugged," Sbaffoni added. "Jesus, I'll tell you, it was something. You're totally exhausted, and then your emotions ... well, you're done. I still can't stop crying."

Urosek and Stricklin finally stirred, gathered their equipment and drove home to Fayette County. Sbaffoni joined the governor for a final news conference at 3:30 a.m., and was ready to leave the site at 5 a.m. He was too tired to drive.

"I'd seen this bed-and-breakfast before, and I went down to Somerset to see if they might have a room," Sbaffoni said. "But it was so late, and I'm debating whether to knock. Then the door opens and the innkeeper is there. He said, 'I was watching TV and I waited up for you.' "

Sbaffoni slept for a few hours, then drove home, arriving at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. After a failed attempt to sleep, he decided to join his softball team in Collinsburg for a scheduled game. As he walked onto the field, applause broke out. In the stands, he saw a sign: "Thanks, Joe!"

After attending a final press conference, Kunkle drove home to New Florence, where he slept for most of the day. Despite all the shut-eye, he realized that his head was still fuzzy when he sat at his computer and couldn't remember how to work his e-mail program.

Sacco led the medical response team trucks back to their base in Indiana County, driving slowly and occasionally pulling over to rest. Park the trucks, drop everything and go home, he ordered when they got back at 6:30 a.m. Cleanup could wait.

"We've waited for 20 years for the opportunity to bring live people out of a mine," he said. "This truly is a lifetime experience."

All the miners except Unger, Fogle and Foy went home from the hospital on Sunday.

Doctors worried that Unger, who complained of right shoulder pain, was suffering from the bends and not the arthritic pain that had plagued him in the past.

"I had some problems with it before, but it seemed that when we came out of there [the mine], it just throbbed," Unger said. "The pain was astronomical."

After consultation with the Navy experts, and not willing to take chances, the medical staff opted to put Unger in one of the portable hyperbaric chambers, which had been brought to the hospital for just such an instance, on Sunday afternoon.

Unger "dove," as the doctors put it, for six hours. The pressure was initially set high to dissolve the nitrogen into tissue and then gradually reduced to allow the gas to dissipate harmlessly.

"That was horrible, I didn't like that," Unger said of the hot chamber. But "it made my arm feel great, so I guess it did the job."

Fogle and Foy, both of whom had chest pain at times while trapped in the mine, had to stay for further cardiac monitoring. Fogle had an irregular, rapid heart rate that was treated with medications. And the fumes from the air pump had aggravated longstanding heartburn and throat problems, triggering fits of coughing and throwing up.

Fogle said his heart is fine now, but he still can't eat. He went home on Monday, as did Unger.

Foy had a history of heart problems and once had an angioplasty for clogged heart arteries. He was pain-free during his hospital stay, but the results of a stress test warranted further evaluation, Dumire said. After echocardiograms and a procedure to check for blocked arteries, he was discharged late Tuesday evening.

Because the world was anxious to hear how the miners had fared during their 78 hours underground, several press conferences were arranged at the hospital.

"I came today to thank everybody out there," said Unger at one of the gatherings, expressing a shared feeling among the men.

Even with all the attention, the miners tried to keep a sense of normalcy. At 12:55 p.m. Sunday, Schweiker walked into Foy's hospital room, but he caught the miner at an inopportune moment.

"Can we make this quick?" Foy asked. "My NASCAR race is going to start in five minutes."

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