Miners, rescuers gather in Somerset County to reflect about the day when the 'Quecreek Miracle' occurred
Quecreek mine survivor John Unger, right, shares a laugh Saturday with Jill Stull, a flight nurse for Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, and former Gov. Mark Schweiker at the 10th anniversary celebration of the rescue at the site of Quecreek Mine in Somerset.
Participants gather at the entrance of the Quecreek mine rescue site for a prayer during the 10th anniversary celebration.
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SOMERSET, Pa. -- There were smiles and backslaps aplenty, to be sure.
But there also were tears and quiet reflection as miners, mine officials and community members gathered Saturday in Somerset County on the farmland where, 10 years to the day, nine miners were rescued against all odds from the flooded Quecreek Mine.
The celebration of the "Quecreek Miracle" included a formal hour-long ceremony with comments by three of the rescued miners, former Gov. Mark Schweiker, who directed the operation, state and federal mine officials, and others involved in what was described as the most historic mine rescue in modern history.
But before and after the formal event, attended by well more than 100 people, the day seemed more a reunion of sorts for the miners, rescuers, volunteers and community member and an opportunity for reflection.
As well, it was a celebration of the perseverance, resiliency and ingenuity of the human spirit at work in the successful "9 for 9" rescue more than three days after the miners became trapped.
They had broken through to an adjacent, water-filled mine, flooding Quecreek with 150,000 gallons of water, so they sought safety at the highest point above water level. Authorities above ground, knowing the miners would do that, figured out where they were, quickly drilled an air shaft to pump life-sustaining heated, oxygen-rich air into their chamber and set about the laborious task of drilling a much larger shaft for the eventual rescue.
"I'm one lucky son of a hickory. We were given 10 more years of life," said rescued miner Thomas Foy, 62, before the formal ceremony. He stood only feet away from the shaft that was drilled 240 feet into the mine chamber. Through it, the miners were hoisted one at a time to safety in a specially designed rescue capsule never used before except in training exercises.
Mr. Foy, who now works for a company who made the drill machinery used in the rescue, recalled the eight-minute ride to safety was "wet as heck but it was beautiful ... the most beautiful ride I've ever had."
Another rescued miner, John Unger, 62, joyfully introduced Mr. Schweiker to Jill Stull, a helicopter flight nurse for Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center who cared for him during his emergency flight for medical care.
"I haven't seen her in 10 years. She took good care of me," a beaming Mr. Unger said.
"I held his hand," Ms. Stull said, smiling.
In an interview, Mr. Unger said the miners "were very fortunate we got a second chance. Over the last 10 years, every day is a good day. Even a bad day is a good day."
He said the miners were shocked by the worldwide attention their rescue engendered, noting that on trips to South Africa and New Zealand he was amazed that residents knew of him and his fellow miners.
Harry Blaine Mayhugh Jr., 41, Mr. Foy's son-in-law, the third miner in attendance, said it's difficult at times for the miners to talk about their experience because it's so emotional.
"It's hard to believe it's been 10 years," said Mr. Mayhugh, who now works for CSX. "I always do think about it. [The rescue] allowed me to be with my wife and kids. My son graduated from high school this year so I got to see that and my daughter graduates next year. It's 10 years I was given."
Mr. Schweiker, now a businessman in King of Prussia, said that despite long odds, no one ever gave up hope of rescuing the miners. The triumphant result was one of the most thrilling moments of his life, he said. He excitedly pointed to the exact spot where he was standing 10 years earlier when he first learned that all nine were alive.
The joy he felt when all the miners got out "was much like what I felt at the birth of our children. In a sense, bringing the miners to the surface was like them being reborn."
Coming as it did only 10 months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- and located but 11 miles from the crash site of Flight 93 -- the rescue took on special significance, he said in his formal remarks to the crowd.
"We asked our dear Lord, each in our own way, 'Help us with this one. The country needs it,' " he said, momentarily choking up. " 'Pennsylvania needs it. Somerset County needs it' and we prevailed. We needed to right the emotional ledger."
In his remarks, Mr. Foy told the crowd he appreciated everything done for the miners.
"You kept me going for 10 years. Thanks to all the rescuers and the man above," he said before breaking down.
"Thank you for everything you've done and all of your support. We're a pretty humble group," said Mr. Unger, who works for another coal company but outside the mine. "We were just doing our jobs. All the rescuers did their jobs well and we appreciate it."
Before and after the ceremony, which concluded a week-long series of special events and commemorations, the crowd milled about the rescue site where farm owner Bill Arnold, executive director of the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation, constructed a monument to the miners and a visitor's center that was dedicated Saturday with a ribbon cutting. More than 10,000 people a year visit the site, which became part of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Historical Marker Program in 2006 and an affiliate of the Senator Heinz History Center in 2010.
First Published July 29, 2012 12:00 am