They walked into Pennsylvania’s Black Wolf mine on Wed., July 24, nine men off to a hard day’s work. They emerged 77 hours later to cheers, tears, floodlights and a sense of joy and relief that swept from coast to coast. In the midst of plenty of bad news—greedy business moguls, a shaky economy and the ongoing war on terrorism—here was a story of shared effort, good luck and saved lives.
The drama began when the miners accidentally pierced a wall into an abandoned adjoining mine that had long ago flooded with water. As a powerful gusher began filling the Black Wolf, nine miners scrambled to safety, but nine others found themselves trapped 240 ft. below the surface with no way to communicate. As rescue crews assembled in Quecreek, Pa., and worked out a risky strategy, the nine men—Ron Hileman, 49; Thomas Foy, 52; Blaine Mayhugh, 31; Mark Popernack, 41; Randy Fogle, 43; John Unger, 52; John Phillippi, 36; Dennis Hall, 49; and Robert Pugh Jr. 50—struggled to stay alive and hopeful.
This is their story, in their words.
Ron Hileman, who has been a coal miner for 30 years: We were on the 3-to-ll p.m. shift, and we were doing what we do every day, moving coal. It was about 9:30, so we were just beginning to think about how we’d be going home soon. We were in the area of an old mine that had been shut down in the ’40s or ’50s. They’d taken the coal out of it, and it had filled with water. We knew about it, but we thought it was 300 ft. farther away. In the olden days the miners had boundaries that they’d sneak across and grab some coal here and there. They’d never put it on their maps. That’s how we got in trouble. I was bolting the roof when all of a sudden we punched into the old mine and the water broke.
A wall of water went past us, like a raging river. We were in an area that was about 5 ft. high and 18 ft. wide. The water reached the bottom and went every which way into the other tunnels. We were uphill at that time. We had to run downhill to the bottom to get out. We were trying to beat the water, but it was traveling too fast. There was no way we were going to outrun it. It was at our feet, then up to our ankles, then getting higher. We were definitely scared.
Tom Foy, foreman: We started looking for high ground then and tried to catch our breath. The force of the water seemed to take all of the oxygen out. We thought a couple of us had heart attacks. We all had pain and couldn’t breathe.
Blaine Mayhugh, Foy’s son-in-law: My father-in-law looked at me and said, “We’re in trouble.” I said, “Yes, Tom. I know.”
Nine other miners, alerted to the accident by a radio distress call from the flooded section, managed to scramble up to safety on the surface, where they sounded the alarm. During the next several hours the trapped miners searched frantically for an escape route.
Hileman: We knew the mine from the inside out, like the back of our hands. But everything was blocked. We split up into teams, but there was no way out. In areas where we searched, the water went over our noses. The ceiling was 5 ft. high and the water was 4½ ft. We were bent over doing this and we had to swim in some places. It was a terrible feeling. That’s when you start hoping and praying and getting scared.
The men had their miners’ lamps, but mostly kept them off in an effort to conserve the batteries. As a result they spent much of the time in total darkness.
Hileman: After about four hours we found a place to sit and wait. We tried to have some communication with the outside. We’d beat on a roof bolt every half hour.
Up on the surface, their distress calls could not be heard. But a massive rescue effort was quickly under way. The first order of business was figuring out where to drill a 6-in.-wide hole that could be used to pump in warm air. Joseph Sbaffoni of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety studied diagrams of the underground terrain. He decided that one area of high ground was the most likely refuge for the men and ordered a shaft sunk there. Then another expert used a global positioning device to pinpoint where on the surface to start drilling.
There was great apprehension among the rescuers, who feared that, working against time, they would have only one chance to have the air hole hit its target. Around 3:30 a.m. on Thursday the hole burst through into the mine—right above where the men were huddled. The miners banged nine times on the air pipe to tell their rescuers they were all alive. But within hours they had to retreat again because the water, which totaled an estimated 50 million gallons, was continuing to rise.
Hileman: When that water started coming in on us and we didn’t have anyplace to go, I figured we were done. We found a dry area about 18 ft. by 60 ft., which was 5 ft. high, so we still couldn’t stand up straight. It was pretty uncomfortable. There were concrete blocks in there that we were piling up to stop the water, but it was still coming in.
Death was staring me in the face, and it was coming to get me. We’d tried everything. We’d looked everywhere to try to get out. But there was nothing to do but stand there and let death come and get us. If you are confronted with something like this, you see it is out of your hands. You can only do so much. It was in the hands of a higher power.
Mayhugh: There were low points every day. My father-in-law and I would hug each other now and then and put our arms on each other’s shoulders to comfort each other.
Hileman: At one point, Tucker [Foy’s nickname] said we should tie ourselves together. If we did drown, we wanted them to find all the bodies in the same place.
Suddenly, though, the water stopped rising, apparently because rescuers had started pumping in hot compressed air, which not only kept the men warm but also forced water out of the tunnels. By Thursday afternoon, the rescue teams had received a 30-in. drill bit from West Virginia, which they used to start carving an escape hole. The trapped miners could hear the drilling, but sitting soaking wet in the dark it was hard to feel much optimism, especially since they had only a single corned-beef sandwich—which they shared—and a few Life Savers for food, plus three gallons of distilled water to drink. (The water that had poured into the mine was contaminated with coal dust.)
Hileman: You couldn’t sleep down there, maybe 10 minutes at a time. It was wet, rocky, hard bottom. Your hips were sore. It was about as uncomfortable as you could get. We wanted to keep everyone warm. We were worried about hypothermia. You shook a lot of the time. That created body heat, so you’d stop shaking. Then you’d get up and you’d start shaking again.
Mayhugh: We cuddled each other to get body heat. One guy was cold, we’d surround him to get warm.
Foy: About Thursday afternoon I got so frustrated I decided to take a walk and look for stuff, when a bucket came floating up. It was Harpo’s [trapped miner Dennis Hall’s] lunch. We had a couple bottles of pop. It was Mountain Dew and Pepsi. They had sugar in them for energy. The water we had would last a couple of days.
Mayhugh: People were quiet a lot of times and worried. You could see it on everyone’s face, that this ain’t good. A lot of looks like “This is probably it.”
Hileman: If I had been there by myself, I would have gone hysterical. We calmed each other down. The longer it dragged on in those horrible conditions, and thinking we weren’t going to get out at all, I almost lost it. We weren’t claustrophobic, though. If you had any feelings like that, you couldn’t have gone down into the mine in the first place.
That Thursday, in despair, Mayhugh wrote a note to his family on a torn scrap of cardboard. All the others took turns doing the same. They put the notes in a lunch bucket, closed it up and hung it on the wall to be found.
Hileman: I just wrote about all the things I loved about my family and all the things we did together. We wrote for an hour or more. Then we took turns and talked. We sat around in a circle and talked about what we had done that afternoon [before the accident], our children, all kinds of things. I was mainly thinking of my marriage, the grandchildren I wouldn’t see, things we had planned on doing and how hard it was going to be on the family when they found out I wasn’t coming out. The thoughts I can tell you about. The feelings I can’t get you to understand.
Mark Popernack: Nobody knows what each other wrote. We got the bucket back. It is never going to be opened. I haven’t even told my wife what I wrote. She asked, but I didn’t tell her.
Mayhugh: We thought more of our family than we did of ourselves. Every one of us was like, okay, we’re going to die, but look how many hearts we’re going to break, children we’re going to leave.
On Friday afternoon the 30-in. drill bit, which weighs 1,500 lbs., snapped and became lodged in the rescue hole.
Hileman: We didn’t know what was going on. [He laughs] We’re thinking, did they take a coffee break or what?
A new gloom settled on the rescuers, who had heard no signs of life since the tapping on the air pipe. As it turned out, however, the mishap with the bit may have been a blessing in disguise. Had they kept going on that shaft, the rescuers would likely have hit water, because the pumps were still having trouble clearing the tunnels below. Instead another bit was used to start a second hole, one that ended up being very near the location of the miners.
Around 10 p.m. on Saturday night, as the drill approached the refuge tunnel, the rescuers turned off the oxygen pump so that the pressure in the mine and outside would equalize. Otherwise the men, like deep sea divers, would have been susceptible to the bends if they were brought up too quickly.
Hileman: We didn’t hear them punch through. The oxygen pump was so loud you couldn’t hear anything. When it stopped, I went to check on it and I looked up and saw the hole they’d drilled. I went back to the guys, who were all lying down. I said, “You guys ready to go home?” We started yelling to them that we were there. They dropped stuff down to us—drinking water, candy bars and a phone.
At 1 a.m. the first miner, Randall Fogle, who had been suffering chest pains, was brought up to loud cheers from the weary rescuers. It took a little over an hour to get out the other eight.
Mayhugh: Everyone was cheering and going nuts. I could see the cap lights. Everything’s a blur, but all I could see was lights as far as I could look—miner lights.
Gov. Mark Schweiker, who stayed at the scene for all three days: It was like watching my children come into the world. It was thrilling.
Hileman: I don’t remember what I said to my wife, Cathy, when I saw her at the hospital. There was a lot of hugging and kissing and crying.
Amazingly none of the miners suffered any serious effects. By Sunday night most had been released from the hospital. Even so, more than a few voiced ambivalence about whether they would ever be able to return to the mines.
Hileman: I can’t say this has changed me. I’m going to do pretty much what I did before. I’ve been in the mines for 30-something years. If my family has a say, I won’t be going back.
Bob Meadows in Quecreek and Sharon Cotliar, Rebecca Paley and Ellen Mazo in New York City