Chile mine drama stirs emotions in Somerset County
The South American desert is a long way from the hills of Somerset County, but for Tom Foy, the story of 33 trapped Chilean miners hits close to home.
"A miner's a miner," he said Monday, as rescue workers prepared to bring the Chileans to the surface after 67 days underground. "We're all like brothers."
Foy, 61, who lives in Berlin, was one of nine coal miners trapped underground for 77 hours after the Quecreek mine flooded on July 24, 2002.
Their dramatic rescue, just seven miles from the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, captured the attention of a nation starved for hope and still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks 10 months earlier.
As they waited for rescue workers to drill a shaft that would bring them to safety, Foy and his co-workers endured frigid temperatures, rising waters, darkness and fear. Reporters from around the world flocked to the site to chronicle the events.
"We had three days of hell, is what we had," he said. "We were soaking in water, nothing to eat. When we came up, that was the happiest day of my life."
The Chilean miners' ordeal began Aug. 5, when a section of the gold and copper mine near the city of Copiapó collapsed.
The men, who have access to food, water and oxygen, have survived in an emergency shelter nearly half a mile beneath the earth's surface as rescue workers drilled a shaft to free them.
If all goes well, everything will be in place late today to begin pulling the men out, officials said. The lead psychologist for the rescue team recommended the extractions begin at dawn Wednesday. No official decision was announced, but Andre Sougarret, the rescue team coordinator, tweeted last night that "today the miners sleep their last night together!"
The Phoenix I capsule -- the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers, named for the mythic bird that rose from ashes -- made its first test run yesterday after the top 180 feet of the shaft was encased in tubing, the rescue leader said.
The rescue capsule resembles the 22-inch-wide yellow basket that carried the nine Quecreek miners up 240 feet. The Chilean miners' journey will be much longer -- they are trapped nearly 10 times below, at 2,258 feet.
Another common thread to the two rescues is the presence of Center Rock Inc., a Somerset County company that provided drill heads and manpower for both operations. The company's president, Brandon Fisher, is in Chile with other executives.
Foy, who went to work for Center Rock after Quecreek, said he was proud that his employer had a hand in rescuing the Chileans.
As the Chilean miners prepare to see daylight, Foy warned that their ordeal is not over.
"It's going to be rough on some of them," he said. "It was on us when we first got out. Everybody's going to want to talk to you."
Fisher told The Associated Press he doubts that the camaraderie the Chilean miners have experienced during their entrapment will last.
"They're in for the surprise of their lives. From here on out, their lives will have changed," he predicted. "There aren't too many of those guys who (will) get along because of all the attention, the lawsuits, the movie deals. Once money gets involved, it gets ugly."
"You're going to have some nightmares," Foy added.
He said that he was unable to go fishing after the Quecreek disaster because the water reminded him of the flooded mine. It took him years to overcome that fear.
"The more you think about it, the worse it gets," Foy said. "You just got to fight it."
Although the Quecreek miners were not prepared to be the center of the country's attention, Foy said he was grateful for the thoughts and prayers of everyone who followed their story in the news.
"I've gotten letters from all over the world," he said. "I couldn't believe people that far away would be interested in a little town like us."
Today, the eyes of Somerset County are on Chile, said Bill Arnold, who runs the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation and visitors center at the site of the disaster. The foundation is collecting funds for the Chilean miners, with donations accepted at Somerset Trust branches.
"We're really anxiously awaiting another successful rescue," Arnold said.
Arnold, whose family farm is above the Quecreek mine, was one of the first people at the scene as emergency officials began rescue operations in 2002. He said the Chilean operation must be similar, if on a larger scale.
"I can imagine emotions must be running really high in Chile," he said. "I think there's an electricity and an excitement and an anxiousness to move forward."
Sipesville fire Chief James Shroyer, who helped with the Quecreek rescue, said he will be in front of the television when the Chileans are pulled to safety.
Shroyer recalled that during the four days of the Somerset rescue, most Sipesville firefighters were "running on adrenaline" and "pure elation when they pulled that first miner up."
That feeling came flowing back when he heard that the rescue workers had broken through in Chile.
"Their rescue is a lot bigger than ours was, but they are both really great events," Shroyer said. "You never forget that feeling -- there's a lot of joy, excitement and a lot of happiness when you first hear they broke through."
The stress of not knowing is what the Rev. Barry Ritenour remembered.
The pastor of Bethany and St. John's United Methodist Churches in Somerset County, Ritenour ministered to the miners' families as they spent days and nights at the Sipesville firehouse, waiting for word on their loved ones' fate.
"It was like being on a roller coaster," he said. "The night we found out the nine were alive, the place erupted with great joy. I can imagine with 33, it's probably utter chaos."
Ritenour said he will be watching the news as the Chilean miners are rescued.
"I've been waiting for them to pop up and say the first guy is out," he said. "There are going to be celebrations in Somerset."