Miners, rescuers gather on 10th anniversary of Quecreek rescue

| Saturday, July 28, 2012, 3:24 p.m.

When then-Gov. Mark Schweiker got the call that nine miners were trapped in the Quecreek Mine, he prayed for a miracle in Somerset County.

The disaster unfolded less than a year after the eyes of the world turned to a field near Shanksville where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, killing all 40 passengers and crew aboard.

“I asked the good Lord, ‘Help us out on this one. The country needs it. Pennsylvania needs it. Somerset County needs it,'” Schweiker said on Saturday at a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the July 28, 2002, rescue that brought all nine miners out alive.

“We needed to right the emotional ledger. For many of us, that was the big driver,” he said.

The miners were trapped underground for 77 hours after breaching an abandoned mine, causing millions of gallons of 55-degree water to flood the Quecreek Mine. The nine men had faced suffocation, drowning and hypothermia before rescuers drilled down to provide fresh air and later pulled the men to the surface in a yellow steel capsule through a rescue shaft.

Schweiker, U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, and miners Blaine Mayhugh, Tom Foy and John Unger were among those who dedicated the newly completed visitors center on Bill and Lori Arnold's Lincoln Township farm, a few yards from where the rescue shaft was drilled.

The two-story center houses the facade of the Sipesville Volunteer Fire Co., which housed the miners' family and friends during the rescue, as well as the rescue capsule and a drill bit that broke underground while trying to reach the miners.

“This is something that emotionally changed my life,” said Critz, who helped pump water from the flooded mine as an aide to the late Sen. John Murtha.

“Regardless of what the outcome would be ... it was about standing up, pulling together,” he said.

Joe Sbaffoni, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Mine Safety in Uniontown, said mining is such a tight-knit industry that mines throughout the area halted operations when they heard about Quecreek and sent their workers to help.

“The good Lord put the right people in the right place at the right time, and then he let the whole world watch for four days,” Sbaffoni said. “He gave us a miracle; I truly believe that.”

More than 150 people sat in chairs and lined walkways and railings listening to officials and miners share their reflections on the “Miracle at Quecreek.”

“I'm a pretty humble guy. I'm a coal miner, and I was just doing my job,” said Unger, who now works above ground at the Roytown Deep Mine, not far from Quecreek. “All the rescuers did their job well, and I really appreciate it.”

The ceremony culminated a week of events at the Arnolds' farm that reunited state and federal mining officials, rescuers and miners and showcased a rare mine disaster that ended happily.

“At this visitors center for all who visit ... we say we are prideful and we want you to know what happened here,” said Schweiker. “In Pennsylvania in 2002, we came together and we prevailed.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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