Ten years ago today, nine men were frantically trying to build dikes with cement blocks against water threatening them in Quecreek Mine, where they had been trapped when they accidentally breached the wall of an adjacent flooded abandoned mine.
It was hard, frantic work and they were breathing low-oxygen air, called black damp, that had poured in from the abandoned mine. Above them on a dairy farm in Lincoln Township in Somerset County, rescuers struggled to figure out how to save them.
But then, at 3:30 a.m., the miners' spirits soared when a 6-inch drill cut into Entry No. 4 and a pipe dropped down. They repeatedly tapped on the pipe -- eventually in a sequence of nine -- to indicate all were alive. And then heated, compressed air came roaring through the pipe, providing them with much needed oxygen.
Still, the foul-smelling water rose foot by foot toward them, eventually covering the air shaft, keeping them from tapping on it. They began to pound on the rock ceiling-- nine taps every 10 minutes -- hoping someone using specialized listening equipment would hear them.
By noon that day, they had completed five cinder block walls, but to no avail. The water overtook them as they worked on the sixth. They had to retreat to the highest ground, about 350 feet from the airshaft. There they would wait for what seemed the inevitable as the water rose closer and closer to them.
The water lapped 70 feet away. It was moving too quickly. Randy Fogle, their leader, told them that in another hour, he estimated, all of them would be dead.
The miners wrote notes to their loved ones on cardboard and sealed them in a plastic bucket.
But the water didn't overtake the miners, as everyone knows. When the word that "All nine are alive!" came two days later, it was something that those involved and many who watched and waited would never forget.
On Sunday, the Post-Gazette will revisit the miners, the rescuers and the scene of the famous rescue.
First Published July 26, 2012 3:30 PM