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RESCUE AT QUECREEK

Under the Ground, 9 Miners Hoped and Despaired--and Penned Farewells

Rescue: The men describe the struggle to keep the faith amid rising, frigid water.

July 29, 2002|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

QUECREEK, Pa. — They wrote goodbye letters on scraps of cardboard they had found in the mineshaft. They placed the notes in a bucket, sealed it with tape and hooked it to a piece of equipment in case rescuers were too late.

Over the next 72 hours, their hopes rose and fell like the level of the frigid water that had trapped them 240 feet beneath the Earth's surface.

These were nine hard-bitten men who among them had spent more than a century underground, men not prone to displays of emotion. But they clung to one another for comfort and warmth, and talked tearfully about such things as the last words they had shared with their wives.

Blaine Mayhugh, the youngest of the crew at 31, winced at the thought Sunday. In 5 1/2 years of deep-mine work, he had never failed to kiss his wife before hopping in his pickup and heading off.

"I always give my wife and kids a kiss, because you never know," he said. But on Wednesday, Leslie was mowing the lawn and Mayhugh was in a hurry. "I waved to her down in the yard and said: 'I love you,' " he recalled. That hurried farewell "was one of the first things I thought of when we were trapped."

Mayhugh and his wife kissed again early Sunday after he and his eight colleagues were hoisted out of the Quecreek Mine at the culmination of one of the most dramatic mining rescues in the nation's history. Six of the men were released from area hospitals Sunday in remarkably good health. Only three were being kept overnight for minor treatment and observation.

Millions of Americans followed the drama as it unfolded above the surface over the last three days. But on Sunday, the miners began providing the first details of the harrowing events underground.

At times, they worked frantically, probing for possible escape routes and building makeshift walls in desperate attempts to keep the water out. At times they slumped together in despair, certain that they would not survive.

None had hesitated to enter the shaft that day when they started their eight-hour shift about 3 p.m. But several now say they will never go back.

The moment their lives changed came about 8:30 p.m., when Mark "Moe" Popernack--the crew's operator--was making a 35-foot cut into a seam of coal. But he breached the wall of an unmapped, abandoned mine, and millions of gallons of water burst through.

"Moe hollered at me, 'Harpo, get out of here,' " Dennis "Harpo" Hall, 49, said. "The water was so furious; it was so intense. You wouldn't believe it." Minutes after the water rushed in, Hall made his way to a telephone to warn another group of miners. "Get out," he said. "I mean now. We've got major water."

Those men who narrowly escaped credit Hall with saving their lives; they say he's a hero. But Hall shrugs off their praise. "I was just doing my job," he said Sunday.

The nine who were trapped worked for hours searching for a way out. They knocked down walls to open other shafts in vain attempts to lower the water level, at times so deep that they had to turn their heads to the side to keep from drowning.

Several, including Mayhugh, pressed on toward the main entrance--which required traveling downstream--but they had to stop when the rising water closed off the escape route. At times, the current seemed unconquerable.

"For a second, I said, 'Blaine, let it go; let it take you,' " Mayhugh said. Then he steeled himself, saying, "Damn it, I've got a wife and kids. I got mad."

He and the others dragged themselves back against the current, toward higher ground farther into the shaft, by pulling themselves along the conveyor belt that carries out the coal.

Popernack was separated from the rest of the group for the first several hours. It was the crew boss, Randy Fogle, 48, who found Popernack and brought him back.

At one point, 52-year-old Tommy Foy, the crew mechanic and Mayhugh's father-in-law, bound the group together with a metal cord looped through their belts so that if the water kept rising and they died, they wouldn't float away from one another.

The men spent several hours searching for a haven. By early Thursday, they had made their way to what was essentially a subterranean beach, a 40-by-20-foot area where the soil was soggy but there was no standing water.

Fogle directed the men to build barricade walls out of cinderblocks they had found in the mine to help keep the water out. "We worked frantically to build the walls," Hall said. "It was to keep the water off us as long as we could until we could be rescued."

The men got their first glimmer of hope that a rescue might be imminent when crews on the surface punched a 6-inch shaft down into an air pocket near where they were waiting. The miners rushed to the pipe and struck it with a hammer nine times--nine clangs that resonated to the surface, signaling that all the men were alive and boosting the spirits of their loved ones.

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