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Quecreek mine rescue transforms life of farm owner

| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 11:18 p.m.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Executive Director, Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation, Bill Arnold, recounts the days leading to the rescue of nine miners trapped in the Quecreek Mine, under his Somerset farm in July, 2004. Arnold spoke to the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce during a Chamber Member Luncheon at DeNunzio's Italian Chophouse located at Latrobe Airport.

As the 12th anniversary of the Quecreek Mine rescue approaches, the owner of the dairy farm where nine miners were trapped underground for 77 hours shared on Thursday how the event renewed his faith and changed his life's path.

“It's always something that's going to be seared into my memory,” Bill Arnold told members of the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce. “It's made a dramatic change in my life.”

Arnold, who has lived in Lincoln Township all his life, was working on the farm the night of July 24, 2002. He heard voices in the pasture and went outside to investigate, thinking there were intruders.

What he found was much scarier — the miners who were working in Quecreek Mine had broken through to the abandoned, water-filled Saxman Mine, and Quecreek was filling with water. Worse, nine miners were trapped in an underground air pocket.

Arnold's farm quickly became ground zero for the nearly five-day-long rescue effort that included mining experts, emergency personnel, Navy SEALs and other farmers.

Arnold said the rescue became personal when his lifelong friend, Sandy Popernack, arrived. Her husband, Mark, was one of the trapped miners.

“I went over to her, and I said, ‘Sandy, we'll get them out,' ” Arnold said.

After a tense 18 hours when a drill malfunction was repaired, people around the world who were captivated by the rescue effort watched television broadcasts showing all nine men rising 240 feet to the surface in a yellow steel cage.

Since 2002, Arnold has worked to preserve the site and to remind others of its historical importance. In 2006, the state designated his farm as a historic landmark. Arnold is the executive director of the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation, which raises money to preserve the site.

“This is not about me; it's not about my farm. It's about what God did and the miracles that happened that day,” he said.

Arnold's farm houses a museum dedicated to the Quecreek Mine accident and the region's coal industry. A destination for tour buses and school field trips, the museum charges $6 admission and features exhibits on the media coverage of Quecreek, a re-creation of the fire hall where the miners' families kept watch and the yellow rescue capsule.

The museum recently acquired mining artifacts and exhibits from the defunct Windber Coal Heritage Center, which was owned by the Rosebud Mining company.

“We realize what we do in part is teaching others about mining history,” Arnold said. “Younger people don't have an understanding of why you'd want to be underground like that, so we have to share history.”

Another draw for tourists is that the farm is only 9 miles from the site of the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville. Arnold said many tour buses first visit the site in Stonycreek Township where a hijacked jetliner crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, then stop at Quecreek.

The Shanksville memorial pays tribute to the 40 passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93 who gave their lives in thwarting a planned terrorist attack on the nation's capital.

“These sites are very close, both geographically and in feeling,” Arnold said. “The common bond is people doing the right thing if for no other reason than it's the right thing to do.”

Arnold said it was this realization that renewed his Christian faith. Though before the accident, he went to church occasionally and thought of himself as a “pretty good guy,” he now attends church regularly and calls the rescue a miracle from God.

“It made a dramatic change in my life,” Arnold said. “Having those guys coming up from the ground at the farm was the best crop we've ever had.”

Alicia McElhaney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6220.

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