SIPESVILLE, Pa. – Men, women and children walk up the lane of the Arnold family dairy farm in a steady stream to pay homage to nine brave coal miners and the skill of the rescue team that brought them up alive from a flooded mine 250 feet below a cornfield Sunday, July 28.

Jeanetta Pyle, who lived in Somerset County until age 10, drove down from Vermont with her husband. “I’m amazed and thankful,” she said. “It’s a testament to the courage of these miners and their belief in their fellow man.”

Everywhere in the rolling highlands of Somerset County, the people are celebrating. On the front porch of the Quemahoning Hotel in the nearby village of Jeffers, the owner had placed a big sign, “Thank God for Miners.”

The miners convened a news conference at the Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown to thank their rescuers. “I didn’t think I was going to see my wife and kids again,” said Blaine Mayhugh, 31. While the phone is busy with wellwishers’ calls, he said, neither he nor the other miners have received a call from the Black Wolf Coal Co., owner of the Quecreek mine.

Black Wolf operates as a subcontractor to PBS Coals, Inc., which supplies 208,000 tons of coal monthly to parent company Mincorp, a subsidiary of the Rockefeller-controlled Citigroup, with over $700 billion in assets. The Black Wolf Coal Co. has been cited 26 times since March 20, 2001, for violations of federal mine safety regulations. About 75 non-union miners produce 15,780 tons of coal monthly in the Quecreek mine, earning about $30,000 a year, half the wages of union miners.

The miners said they tied themselves together to keep from drifting apart in the frigid water and scrawled farewell messages to their wives and children on scraps of cardboard. The mine flooded the night of July 24 when the miners drilled into an abandoned mine they thought was hundreds of feet away. Millions of gallons of water gushed into the mine. They managed to retreat to high ground where an air pocket kept them from drowning.

The Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department, Station 607, a century-old former two-room schoolhouse, served as a rallying place for all the families during the rescue operation. The station was a scene of rejoicing when news of the rescue arrived early Sunday morning. The celebration was still underway when a reporter visited the next afternoon. The parking lot was full and two gleaming engines were parked out front. A big sign proclaimed, “Thanks to God and the rescue workers! 9 for 9.”

Jim Shroyer, 3rd Assistant Chief, voiced quiet pride that they were the first to arrive on the scene with two engines, setting up a command post and awaiting the arrival of the drilling rig. They were on the scene throughout the ordeal.

Michael Brant, president of the volunteer unit, said, “Miracles do happen, so you never give up. The skill started when one of the mining engineers said ‘drill here.’ He knew the miners were directly below.”

Roger Rayman said his grandfather had been a coal miner. “It is a way of life in Somerset County. Nearly every family has fathers or grandfathers who worked in the mines.”

I asked them if mining coal is a highly paid occupation in the county. Brant snorted. “That job pays $12 an hour. There aren’t any union mines in Somerset County. These miners work for a very rich corporation for $26,000 a year. They work a hell of a lot of overtime.”

Brad Hillegass, 32, was at the controls of the crane that lifted the exhausted miners to the surface in a basket dropped down the 30-inch rescue shaft drilled during the desperate effort. At one point, the bit broke, forcing an 18-hour delay in the drilling.

“Once we learned they were alive, I was pretty confident we could get them out safely,” Hillegass told the World on his cellular phone from his job. “We went through every worst-case scenario, but I knew that if they could get into the basket, we could lift them out. I’m a volunteer fireman, so I’m used to emergencies. But I’ve never experienced anything like this. I think it is a great miracle they are alive and well.”

Hillegass, a 14-year member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, AFL-CIO, added, “Unions are the main reason we have all the safety regulations we have. They were the ones who pushed through OSHA and the Mine Safety laws. They are the pacesetters in winning safety in the workplace.”

Bob Leverknight, a freelance photographer, was still on assignment at the Arnold farm, where he shot photos of the rescue for a local paper. One of the airliners hijacked Sept. 11 crashed nearby in Somerset County with no survivors. “We really needed this, a happy ending after all the grief of Sept. 11,” he said. “We should push the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Geological Survey to map these abandoned mines so it doesn’t happen again. Next time there could be 25 miners dead.”

An investigation of the accident by the Federal Mine Safety Administration is expected to focus on maps of the abandoned Saxman mine drawn up in the 1950s. Joseph Jashienski, 89, told the Associated Press that a now-deceased mine superintendent made up the map.

The falsified maps deliberately concealed a seam of coal the size of a baseball field. The Saxman Coal Company was supposed to have left this coal in place to prevent collapse of the farmland above, but the company mined it out in violation of law. That would explain why the nine miners punched through a wall of coal that was supposed to be 300 feet thick.

Bettty Lou Wacko, a physical therapist from Acme, Pa., stood gazing at the rescue shaft in the middle of the cornfield. She had been so gripped by the story, she attended the miners’ news conference earlier that day. “You could see their connection with each other,” she said. “That is the reason they survived. This was not individual man against nature. A collective group effort was their salvation.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com

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