Miners vowed to stick together

Monday, July 29, 2002

SOMERSET, Pa. -- The nine coal miners who were rescued from a cramped, flooded shaft Sunday decided early in their 77-hour ordeal that they would "live or die as a group," tying themselves together so all their bodies would be found if they drowned.

They also scrawled last messages to loved ones as they huddled together to keep warm 240 feet below the Earth's surface.

"I didn't think I was going to see my wife and kids again," a teary-eyed Blaine Mayhugh told reporters, hours after being pulled out of the Quecreek Mine in western Pennsylvania.

He, his father-in-law and the seven others were stuck for more than three agonizing days, often in darkness, after water from an abandoned, water-filled mine flooded the shaft where they were working.

A desperate rescue operation that included more than 150 workers, tons of heavy equipment and 18 medical helicopters finally paid off when rescuers reached the miners Sunday morning and pulled them up a narrow shaft, one by one, in a yellow cylindrical capsule.

"The scary part was watching the water rise and knowing that you don't have a way out," miner Dennis Hall told NBC.

Though they were covered in coal dust and their heavy-duty clothes were soaked through, the miners emerged in surprisingly good physical condition.

"If you were to meet any of these guys on the street right now, you would not know that they were trapped in a cavern full of water for three days," said Dr. Russell Dumire, a trauma surgeon at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, where six of the men were taken.

One of the miners was in a decompression chamber after experiencing early symptoms of the bends, an excruciating condition caused by sudden changes in pressure, Dumire said. Two others were under observation, including Mayhugh's father-in-law, Thomas Foy, 51.

Foy told family members "he'll never go underground again," said his daughter, Tonya Butler, 26.

Longed to see daylight

Miner Robert Pugh, 50, said in a statement that he longed to see daylight after his overnight rescue. "I couldn't wait to see the sunrise this morning and I couldn't sleep in anticipation of the sunrise," he said.

At the White House, President Bush "was thrilled to know that all of the miners had been rescued," spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

The miners had two working lights but saved them for forays into the shaft. Mayhugh, 31, said the men were "snuggling each other, laying up against each other, sitting back-to-back to each other, anything to produce body heat."

The miners also huddled around a pipe funneling down warm air.

The miners, Dumire said, "decided early on they were either going to live or die as a group."

Around noon Thursday, Mayhugh asked his boss for a pen when the water in the shaft was rising. "I said, 'I want to write my wife and kids to tell them I love them,'" said Mayhugh, choking back tears.

By 10:16 p.m. Saturday, rescuers had bored through the ceiling where the miners were trapped. The breakthrough let workers drop a telephone and confirm they were alive.

No beer allowed

One of the miners reportedly requested chewing tobacco. As a result, Conemaugh hospital was inundated with chewing tobacco though doctors wouldn't immediately allow it, or the beer some miners requested, for fear of dehydration.

At the hospital, hunger overtook the miners, who "pretty much devoured anything that was put in front of them" -- doughnuts, sandwiches, soup and coffee, Dumire said.

David Hess, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, promised a joint federal-state investigation to help determine why underground maps apparently showed the abandoned Saxman Mine some 300 feet away from where the miners were working.

The first miner was pulled through the 26-inch wide hole at about 1 a.m. Sunday -- to the wild applause of rescuers. His comrades emerged in roughly 15-minute intervals, with the last one appearing at about 2:45 a.m. Some had chipped American flag decals on the sides of their helmets.

The first to come out, 43-year-old Randy Fogle, had reported feeling chest pains in the mine. Hospital officials said he has a history of heart problems and would remain hospitalized until at least today.

The miners surprised medical personnel who had prepared to treat them for symptoms of hypothermia or the bends. Decompression chambers, ambulances and 18 helicopters were at the scene 55 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

After word came the men were alive, the Sipesville Fire Hall, where the families of the men had been gathering, erupted in celebration.

Tapping the whole time

Though the miners had not been heard since Thursday because of the noise of rescue equipment, mining company spokesman John Weir said they "were tapping the whole time they were down there."

The rescue attempt transfixed the nation and the region, a rural area where the hijacked Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11.

The miners became trapped about 9 p.m. Wednesday, when they inadvertently broke into an abandoned, water-filled mine that maps showed to be 300 feet away.

Mayhugh said a 4-foot wall of water -- as many as 60 million gallons -- came crashing through the breached wall. "We tried to outrun it, but it was too fast," he said.

But they were able to warn a second crew, which escaped.

"They are the heroes. If not for them, there'd be dead bodies," said mine worker Doug Custer, among the group who escaped.

The trapped miners spent roughly five hours in the water, at one point attempting to break through another wall to try to bring the water level down. Instead, the level rose, forcing them to swim in their heavy miners' clothes, Mayhugh said.

Drilling a rescue shaft to the men, who ranged in age from early 30s through early 50s, began more than 20 hours after the accident when a drill rig arrived from West Virginia. Drilling was halted early Friday morning because a 1,500-pound drill bit broke after hitting hard rock about 100 feet down, delaying the effort by 18 hours.

A second rescue shaft was started, and it wasn't until Saturday that measurable progress was being made on both shafts.

Mayhugh's wife, Leslie, said she prayed throughout the ordeal. "I knew I couldn't lose my dad and my husband. I just knew it. It wasn't their day," she said.

Mayhugh said he "feels great" physically. "But emotionally ... it's going to take time to heal."

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