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President says Quecreek Nine, rescuers typify nation's strength

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

By Cindi Lash and Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Gazing from atop the makeshift stage at one end of the Green Tree Volunteer Fire Department, John Unger blanched to see a crush of reporters heading toward him and shook his head.

President Bush greets Quecreek Nine miner John Unger yesterday at the Green Tree Volunteer Fire Department. Other miners with the president are Randy Fogle, left; Dennis Hall, far right, and John Phillippi. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"Really, this is not me," he said as yet another cluster of microphones was thrust into his face. "I'm just a common man."

Maybe so. But while they may shun the spotlight, the Quecreek Nine, as they now are known, once again found it squarely focused on them when they, their families and their rescuers came face to face yesterday with President Bush.

The nine coal miners, who first attracted the world's attention two weeks ago when they spent 78 hours trapped underground in the flooded Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, once more were watched by the world while the president extolled them and their rescuers for their "American spirit."

"Today we're here to celebrate life, the value of life, and as importantly, the spirit of America," said Bush, drawing the first of several ovations from the crowd of about 300 people after he strode onto an impromptu stage set up at one end of the fire hall. "What took place here in Pennsylvania really represents the best of our country, what I call the spirit of America, the great strength of our nation."

The president, who was in Western Pennsylvania yesterday to attend a fund-raising luncheon Downtown for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Mike Fisher, met privately with the miners for 20 minutes yesterday morning. Bush then appeared with them at the fire hall, which is just off the Green Tree exit of Interstate 279 on the route to the luncheon at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers.

 
 
Additional coverage

Bush visit here raises more than $1 million for Fisher's candidacy

Text of President Bush's speech in Green Tree, Aug. 5, 2002

Photojournal

   
 

"He just talked to us as everyday people, like we were each one of the guys, and we talked to him like he was one of us," Unger said. "I told him we're all right, we're doing good. He gave me a big hug."

"It was kind of crazy. He's the president, but he was worrying about us," said miner John Phillippi. "I told him we're still shaky and we need a little time at home."

Bush told the crowd that he was one of millions of Americans and others around the world who had been transfixed and moved to prayer by the miners' ordeal and the efforts of rescuers who drilled 240 feet through the earth to free them.

"Everybody prayed. A lot of people -- if I say everybody, I don't know if everybody prayed. I can tell you, a lot prayed," the president said. "A lot prayed for your safety, a lot prayed for your families. A lot pled to an almighty God that you were rescued. And thank God the prayers were answered."

The president again drew applause as he celebrated the miners' families for their courage and the hundreds of workers from state and federal agencies and volunteers from mining, drilling, engineering and firefighting companies who pitched in during the rescue without thought of compensation.

He said all of them embodied the neighborliness and determination that typify the "American spirit" that he repeatedly invoked. That spirit, Bush said, "will help us in the challenges we face around the world" in the fight against terrorism.

The president then shook hands with each of the miners, hugged several of them and autographed the credentials they wore around their necks. He also autographed the bright red cast on the right ankle of Lori Arnold, who with her husband, Bill, owns the farm above the mine that became the center of rescue operations.

"When this cast comes off this week, I'm asking the doctor to preserve it," said Arnold, who had surgery to repair connective tissue several weeks ago. "Maybe I'll put it in a glass case."

The miners, too, drew boisterous cheers and a standing ovation when they slipped unannounced from a side door and took their seats in two rows of folding chairs on the stage's left side. Dressed in polo shirts, shorts or casual slacks and ball caps, they smiled, waved and laughed when Bush referred to miner Harry Blaine Mayhugh as "Harvey."

"This was the chance of a lifetime to visit a president like this," said miner Thomas Foy, who also persuaded Bush to sign a shoulder of his white T-shirt. "I did vote for him before, but you know I'll vote for him now."

Still, the men and their families were uncomfortable with all of the attention. Miner Bob "Boogie" Pugh marveled at all the strangers who were shaking his hand and calling him a hero. "The guys working on the surface were the heroes. I'm just glad to be alive," he said.

Mayhugh's wife, Leslie, who is also Foy's daughter, moved through a hastily assembled receiving line, smiling, shaking hands and repeatedly saying, "Hello. Thank you. How do I know you?" Her voice quavered when she clutched the hands of 11 Consol Energy Inc. mine rescue team members from the Enlow Fork mine in Greene County. They had stood by to descend into the Quecreek Mine if the trapped miners had been unable to board a rescue capsule without help.

"This is the highest point, with the president here, that it's going to get to. Now it's time to settle down," she said, still wearing the ivory angel brooch that someone pinned on her shoulder two weeks ago while she waited for word of her husband and father.

"We're not complaining, but [the miners] need time and we need time. My kids just want to go swimming and be with their dad," she said. "It's been an awesome week, but a long week and we're ready to go home."

Unger said he'd been so overwhelmed by attention from well-wishers and reporters that he hadn't had time to "talk to myself" or pick up a newspaper since the morning of July 24 -- hours before the mine flooded, trapping him and his colleagues.

"When we get back to normal, I'm gonna like it a lot. We're just trying to regroup and enjoy our families," said Unger. "We're out alive. That's all we care about. We were just guys doing our job. We're just working people."

Still, the miners clearly enjoyed shaking hands or exchanging bear hugs with many of the people who'd participated in their rescue -- everyone from U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to Julie Wilson, 20, of Cheswick, and Lewis Murray, 22, of Weedville, Elk County, both interns with the state Department of Environmental Protection who'd helped to run the media center at the rescue site.

Gazing around the crammed fire hall, DEP Secretary David Hess joked that he didn't recognized many people because they no longer were encased in layers of dried mud and had shed their white hard hats.

"For every one or two people [from state, federal and volunteer agencies] here today, there were 10 or 12 more out there," said Hess, looking considerably less bleary than he did a week ago. "You look around here and you get a sense of who all was involved."

Also in the crowd was an enthusiastic contingent from the Black Wolf Coal Co., including nine other miners who escaped from the Quecreek Mine after Dennis Hall -- one of the nine who would be trapped -- used a mine phone to scream a warning to flee. Unable to lead the trapped miners to safety that night, those miners worked through the weekend to help with the efforts to free them.

"We were survivors and rescuers," said Dave Petree of Windber, one of the nine who escaped. He had no doubt that the other nine would get out, too.

"Coal miners are smart. We're not dummies," he said. "People think we are, but we're not."

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