'Lasting bond': Ex-Gov. Schweiker looking forward to reunion with Quecreek miners

·6 min read

Jul. 14—When Gov. Mark Schweiker first stepped onto the Somerset County soil where nine miners were trapped 240 feet below his feet in 2002, he had millions of dollars in specialized equipment being assembled and a team of industry experts at his side.

He also had no guarantee any of that would matter.

In the hours after nine Quecreek miners breached an unmarked, adjacent mine, flooding the shaft, there was no certainty they had survived, he recalled in an interview with The Tribune-Democrat.

Now 20 years later, Schweiker's return will bring many of the same faces together to celebrate the outcome — a reunion marking a "miracle," he said.

Schweiker plans to gather with the surviving miners Saturday at Jennerstown Speedway to commemorate the 20th anniversary as well as attending a private event with their families, he said.

"It's amazing now to think that in the span of less than 80 hours, we went from 'My Lord, where are they?' to watching that yellow capsule bring them up — a rescue capsule that had never been used before," he said. "It was breathtaking."

Schweiker likened the upcoming weekend to a family reunion.

But rather than being bonded by blood and decades of memories, it was a shared "never give-up" attitude, 80 often tense hours side-by-side — for those separated above ground and below — and a storybook ending.

"We're all a little bit older — but there's a lasting bond because we all went through something unforgettable together," he said.

Unforgettable, but far from simple.

'Never gave up'

Once the mine was breached, 72 millions of gallons of water flooded the underground tunnels.

While one team of nine escaped, the second had no choice but to flee to the highest ground the miners could find.

"Imagine being with eight other people sitting for 77 hours underneath your kitchen table with water up to your chin, at times," Schweiker said. "That's the type of space they were in — an air pocket.

"Imagine what it took to support each other in that moment. They encouraged each other and prayed together and never gave up."

Above ground, state and federal mine experts, including representatives of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, began planning for an uncertain rescue — with the realization that time was short.

"My mindset was, if I was going to err it was going to be on the side of action," Schweiker said.

One of the first goals was getting air to the miners — a move that prompted rescuers to drill a small hole down to a spot identified as high ground away from the breach.

"We had no way to know where they'd be," Schweiker said.

Morse code message

He credited Joe Sbaffoni, director of the Bureau of Mine Safety for the Department of Environmental Protection, for pouring through maps to identify the most logical location and fellow officials for deciding to run a pipe to the location.

They were spot on, sending the pipe hundreds of feet down. It dropped so close to the miners that it nearly knocked one of their hard hats off, he said.

The move not only provided them with air at a point they needed it most — but also warmed the area, preventing them from shivering into hypothermia.

"No one had ever tried that before," he said of the narrow pipe. "And, thankfully, it worked."

Within moments, the team knew it, too.

The miners used Morse code to tap on the pipe to let people on the surface know they were all alive.

It was a lively, heart-racing moment.

But it was just the first of several life-saving decisions the rescue team gambled on to bring the men to safety.

"Those men really avoided death three times," Schweiker said.

"The first was the air pipe. The second time was when we were able to get pumps to start draining the water," he said. "Then, of course, was the rescue capsule."

That steel capsule, he said, was designed years earlier but it too was never used until July 28, 2002.

'Plenty of risks'

Schweiker said it was one of "many judgement calls" made through constant consultation with men such as Sbaffoni and MSHA's John Urosek.

Both had Fayette County ties and "lifetimes" of experience in mine safety, Schweiker said.

"A lot of what we tried ... it was part of a litany of first attempts — and oftentimes plenty of risks," Schweiker said, noting that anytime they drilled into the pocket where the miners were huddling, there was a risk "we'd floor their air pocket."

He said: "There was a lot to consider and not a lot of time."

Schweiker oversaw the rescue operation first-hand from Somerset County, oftentimes traveling between the rescue site and a RV outfitted as a command center, Sipesville fire hall and a vacant grocery store — where families and media waited separately for updates.

He said he learned from his days as a county commissioner that the only way to handle an emergency response was directly — at the scene.

Twenty years later, he is still remembered for it, Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation's Bill Arnold said.

Schweiker's dedication and decisiveness are a big part of the Quecreek story and the "iconic" blue dress shirt and loafers he wore remain part of the museum's permanent exhibit, Arnold said.

Schweiker wore the shirt to deliver updates to families and the media — both during breakthroughs and setbacks.

Through Black Wolf Coal's request, crews were able to track down a high-impact drill that was mounted on a tractor trailer rig.

It was capable of drilling a 30-inch diameter hole large enough to send the capsule into the earth.

Schweiker said he gave the order to have the drill hauled in from West Virginia — at police escort "going about 80 miles per-hour."

Drilling began late July 25 but by 1:15 a.m. the next morning, the massive bit got stuck in a layer of rock and broke while it was 100 feet down.

"That was a lowpoint, no question," he said. "My outlook was that it was my responsibility to head to Sipesville fire house and give the families an update. A lot of them broke down and cried at that point — I'm sure a lot of them prayed."

In 24 hours, those prayers would be answered.

A second drill bit was used to bore another tunnel that reached within 20 feet of the space where miners were trapped. That evening, they broke through the final layer, enabling the crew to lower a telephone down to the miners.

The response at the other end: All nine were still alive.

The 8 1/2 foot-tall "Con-Space" cage was lowered at 12:30 a.m. July 28 and each of the men was lifted to safety — one by one.

"Governor Schweiker and the team they put together at MSHA — the rescue workers and drillers — they were the true heroes," said John Unger, one of the nine saved day. "Without them ... we would have died down there."