Time usually does pass quickly, but in 2002 it moved at a terrifyingly slow pace for nine men trapped in a flooded tunnel of the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and their loved ones.
In a saga that drew national and even global attention, the coal miners spent 77 grueling hours 240 feet underground, from July 24 to July 28, before being winched back to the surface one by one in a steel mesh escape capsule. They were wet, cold, dirty and hungry but otherwise in fairly good shape, considering their life-threatening ordeal.
Most mining disasters involve leaks of poisonous gases or explosive natural gases. The Quecreek incident was uncommon but no less horrible. Inaccurate maps led the men to dig into a nearby abandoned, flooded mine.
Millions of gallons of water from that cavity quickly filled up sections of the Quecreek Mine, cutting off the men’s return route. Other miners in another section managed to clamber out and alert authorities.
After rescuers were able to determine their colleagues’ location and drill several shafts, water was pumped out so they wouldn’t drown and air was pumped in, creating a pocket and pressurizing the chamber, which was just four feet high.
It’s hard to imagine spending three days and nights in such god-awful conditions in what easily could have become a watery grave for them.
They shared what little food and drink they could get their hands on. Believing that their chances for survival were slim, the Black Wolf Coal Co. co-workers prayed for deliverance and at one point wrote notes to their families.
The world was watching raptly as hundreds of people labored day and night orchestrating the escape plan several miles north of Somerset on Bill Arnold’s dairy farm.
Their salvation is cause for celebration to this day. Survivors, rescuers and former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker attended a 15th anniversary celebration. Other commemorations were held at the five- and 10-year marks.
We have visited the Monument for Life Memorial Park where the rescue operation occurred, which is in the vicinity of the Shanksville Flight 93 site where a hijacked jetliner crashed into a field during terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
A bronze statue of a coal miner sits at the entrance. The rescue shaft is still visible. The Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation website says a museum there includes the rescue pod and clothing worn by the miners. Nine evergreen trees have been planted to represent the crew.
Several books have been written, including one by the miners themselves. Their harrowing tale was dramatized by ABC in a television movie titled “The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story.”
The incident also led to improvements in mine safety, mapping and drilling methods, a silver lining in the tortuous experience they endured.