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Emergence of dirty faces makes tense world glad

| Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

Apart from the thrill it sent around the world, the rescue of 33 miners trapped 70 days in Chile brought reminders of the millions who work out of daylight on all continents. Miners, yes, but also tunnel diggers, subway and utility workers.

Is there a more universal fear than "buried alive"•

And it needn't be a worker. In 1949, a 3-year-old child at play in a California field fell down an abandoned well. Crowds up to 10,000 gathered. Television news, then in infancy, broadcast "live" the desperate efforts to drill a well alongside to free Kathy Fiscus. But they couldn't in time.

The Quecreek rescue in Pennsylvania's Somerset County in 2002 — nine miners delivered safely 74 hours after a cave-in — crossed all boundaries of pride and relief.

In August 1963, the focus was on another place in Pennsylvania: a small coal operation near the village of Sheppton, Schuylkill County. Mine owner David Fellin and two helpers were 330 feet down when tons of roof gave way.

Northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite, "hard coal," had a disappearing market even then, and Fellin's struggling dig was a so-called slope mine, its shaft plunging into darkness not straight down but at an angle. Rescuers tried to fight the rubble with pick, shovel and air-hammer for a day ... two days ... three. But not a sign of life.

Then a brother of Fellin's named Joe started to raise hell. He accused the state of not doing enough. Drill, he demanded. Drill down past the cave-in to where there might be a little survival space. Try it.

So a 6-inch hole was bored. And seven days after the accident it broke through, almost right on top of two men miraculously alive. They'd survived on water seepage and lunch scraps. (The third miner had tried to run the other way and perished.)

The Sheppton mine rescue became one of those irresistible, uniting stories that the world hungers for.

Newspaper, radio and TV from all over found their way to a trampled bit of field and woods near the little out-of-the-way town. Food, water, clothing and encouragement went down the pipe for another week. Legendary oilman and billionaire Howard Hughes (remember him?) sent equipment to drill a 17 1/2-inch-diameter hole to haul the trapped duo out.

The climax came after midnight of a dark, chilly country morning. Police tried half-heartedly to keep people away, but at least 1,000 adults and teenagers weren't going to miss this. They tramped through the scrub to a very American scene, floodlit for life saving and picture taking.

Coffee and snack booths lined the area as at a carnival. A U.S. flag flapped at the top of Hughes' drilling rig. Cameras, microphones, pencils and notepads were poised. A construction crane lowered a parachute harness into the pit (not the sort of space age capsule that delivered the much deeper Chileans). Tremendous cheers greeted Davey Fellin, 58. and Hank Throne, 28, as they popped up blinking into the lights after 14 days trapped.

Someone who was there will never forget one funny detail. The pair restored to life came out with the dirtiest faces you ever saw. And the world was glad.

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