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Miner hero

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006

John W. Blazek says simply, "I had to do it."

He crawled under a roof fall -- 97 feet in length and 15 feet thick -- to reach another miner buried in the debris.

The rescue at Robena Mine, near Carmichaels, on Jan. 31, 1956, earned Blazek a Carnegie Hero Medal.

Last Tuesday, on the 50th anniversary of the rescue, the lifelong Masontown resident told his story.

Pam Seighman, the curator of the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, videotaped Blazek's recollections of that day, while the center's oral historian, Elaine H. DeFrank, conducted the interview. The effort was part of the center's 30-year mission to collect oral histories of coal miners and their families.

At 89 years of age, Blazek's memory is clear.

He said Jan. 31, 1956 started as a normal day.

Part of his job as a "jeep driver" of the mantrip that ran on a mine track was to respond to emergencies, such as a report of a piece of heavy machinery buried in a roof fall.

On this day 50 years ago, Blazek got a message that " a man was covered up."

Percy Hooper, then 33, was operating a coal loading machine when the roof came down.

Blazek said that Hooper was in a stooped position trapped between the machine and the fall.

As other miners pumped compressed air into the debris, Blazek said he couldn't just stand around.

"I got my shovel ... I made a hole ... then I started crawling," he said.

He inched his way toward Hooper, with tons of unstable rock overhead.

DeFrank asked Blazek what had prevented the compromised mine roof from caving in again.

"The Lord," Blazek said.

He felt the trapped miner's leg about 10 feet into the fall and chipped away at surrounding rock with a hand ax in an attempt to free him. The battery cable from Hooper's head lamp was tangled in the debris, holding him fast. Miners slid a knife to Blazek and he cut the cable free.

A page on the Carnegie Hero Fund Web site describes what happened next.

"The foreman inserted his body partially into the tunnel and grasped Blazek's ankles, and others then cautiously pulled all three from the tunnel in a human chain," it reads.

The page goes on to note that "Hooper, who had been buried an hour and a half, was hospitalized for four days from shock and bruises."

Blazek said his only injury was a "skinned belly."

Hooper still lives in the Uniontown area, but he couldn't be reached for comment on the rescue. The Coal and Coke Heritage Center would also like to record his story for posterity.

Blazek, who spent 30 minutes in the tunnel, said he "got nervous" when he finally left it.

But when he went home that day, he acted as if nothing had happened.

"He didn't tell me about it," said Selma Blazek, his wife of 58 years.

"I didn't want to work her up," he said.

Blazek told of another roof fall in which he and miners tunneled 30 feet to reach the body of miner buried in the cave in.

Blazek was presented with his Carnegie Hero Medal at the H.C. Frick Coal Co. picnic at Idlewild Park 50 years ago.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie established the award in response to the 1904 disaster at Harwick Mine in Allegheny County.

Doug Chambers, director of external affairs for the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, said that "everyone who has received the award has risked their life on behalf of another."

About 20 percent of the medals were awarded posthumously, he said.

Carnegie's likeness is on the front of the medal. The rear side includes the biblical quote from St. John: "Greater love hath no man than this. That a man lay down his life for a friend."

DeFrank also guestioned Blazek and his wife about growing up in the coal fields.

Blazek's father, John Sr., was an immigrant who rose to the position as a "demonstrator" of mining machines for U.S. Steel and who built a number of homes in Masontown with his own hands.

Blazek had four brothers. His voice cracked as he talked about his brother, Andrew, a Marine killed in World War II.

Selma Blazek grew up in the Greene County patch of Bobtown. After graduating in 1941 from Point Marion High School, she worked in the company store where one of her duties was decorating the store windows.

Blazek said he used to drive by to see the girl in the window.

Selma's father initially disapproved of the subsequent romance because her family was Methodist and Blazek's was Roman Catholic, but he came to accept and love his son-in-law.

The couple has two children, Denise Martin, the former superintendent of the Albert Gallatin Area School District, and John, an FBI agent based in Virginia.

Blazek worked both in the mines and in a series of other jobs, including a stint with Ford in Detroit.

The firm handshake of a man used to hard work belies his advanced age.

Blazek said he's thought about what the miners killed in recent tragedies went through, but that that wouldn't stop him from working in the mines.

"I'd go tomorrow if they'd let me," he said.

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