John Unger promised his wife that if anything bad ever happened to his job in the coal mine, he would find a way to survive.
For 29 years he kept that promise, always returning to the century-old rural home in Somerset County where they raised a family and tended their livestock.
But that all changed shortly before 9 p.m. on July 24, 2002, when Unger and eight other miners, relying on outdated maps, mistakenly drilled an abandoned section of a nearby coal seam, releasing 72 million gallons. freezing water that blocked their exit and trapped them 240 feet underground at the Quecreek mine.
“I always told him that no matter how bad the situation was, when the dust cleared, I would be there,” Unger said.
But it was different.
“This time,” he said, “I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew.”
As rescuers worked feverishly in the sweltering humidity for 77 hours, the miners, battling the effects of freezing cold and shrinking air, shared what little food they had left, huddled together for warmth and wrote farewell letters to loved ones on shreds. cardboard, sealing them in a lunch box for safekeeping.
Unger, now 72, said he signed a letter to his wife, “I’m sorry”, rather than “I love you”, a nod to that promise he feared was about to break.
Stranded in the grim darkness of a 4-foot-tall chamber where miners sought refuge, his mind was overwhelmed with thoughts of what would happen to his family and his farm if he did not survive.
“God gave us all a second chance,” Unger said. “In the mining industry, that doesn’t always happen.
When it does, “you just enjoy life more every day. Even the bad days are good.
That second chance came late Saturday, July 27, when drillers drilled a hole in the Lincoln Township mine about 100 yards from the miners and a crane operator meticulously lowered a thin, yellow metal capsule to begin drilling. lift them, one by one, through a 26-inch hole.
It was a precarious and untested method of rescue, the product of brainstorming by teams working against time to save miners before they drowned in rising waters or crashed. suffocate when their air supply runs out.
With an army of reporters and television cameras from around the world capturing every moment of the rescue, the first miner out was foreman Randy Fogle, who was suffering from chest pain while underground.
Although each miner was suffering from the effects of cold and dehydration, the medical teams assigned to them marveled at how well they emerged from the mine. All have fully recovered after being taken to hospitals for treatment.
Unger was the fourth to come out of the mine. The trip to the top took six minutes.
“It’s the best six minutes of my life,” he said.
More change to come
More than the miners’ outlook on life changed after the accident.
“We were normal people when we came in (and when) we came back, everything changed,” Unger said.
In July 2002, Americans were still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 10 months earlier. But the nation was spurred on by the happy ending that unfolded in Quecreek, located 10 miles from where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field on September 11, 2001.
Everyone wanted to hear the story of the miners, to shake their hands, to have their picture taken with them.
The miners met with President George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey and sports personalities from Pittsburgh.
A film was made about their experience. They released a book.
The attention was hard to escape.
“The first year was the worst,” Unger said.
Most of them just wanted to go back to the simplicity of their old life.
For fellow miner Robert Pugh, 70, of Quemahoning, that was easier said than done.
In addition to the crushing attention, the accident had an emotional impact.
“I still think about it,” said Pugh, who worked in the mines for 32 years and now runs a goat and chicken farm about four miles from the Quecreek mine, which closed permanently in 2018. “I always have trouble sleeping at night.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to face again,” he said. “Sometimes I can talk about it. Sometimes I can’t.
His reaction is not unusual, according to psychologist Michele Mattis, director of behavioral sciences at Excela Health’s Latrobe Family Medicine Residency Program. She was a guidance counselor at Somerset Area High School at the time of the rescue and spent time with families, friends and members of the Quecreek community.
Age and coping strategies are key factors in how a person reacts to trauma, she said, and nightmares that last for years are common.
Pugh, who was the eighth man raised from the mine, said he was “a lot softer than me (at the time).”
Many miners have retreated from the spotlight. Sometimes they attend community celebrations on the anniversary of the rescue.
Where the mine now stood is a museum and memorial that attracts more than 10,000 people a year, according to Bill Arnold, owner of the farm the mine was on and who is executive director of the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation and from its reception center. .
Six of the miners – Blaine Mayhugh, Ronald Hileman, Mark Popernack, John Phillippi, Randy Fogle and Tom Foy – did not return calls requesting interviews for this story.
Miner Dennis Hall, 68, died May 13 at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.
Many accounts of the Quecreek accident credit Hall with rescuing a group of nine other men from the mine that day when he was able to call them and warn them of the torrent of water heading their way after the rupture of the coal seam.
Where are they now?
Some of the rescued miners have returned to the bituminous coal industry, while others have found work in different fields.
Pugh and Unger spend time with their children and grandchildren and have returned to an old hobby: hunting.
“I killed a deer that year,” said Unger, who amassed dozens of deer antlers, in addition to a mount of kudu – a type of antelope – he shot in South Africa. South.
He wanted to return to mining, but after a “big protest” from his family, he compromised and went to work on the surface in the industry before retiring in 2015.
It’s a job he’s loved since the day he started in 1974, earning $50 a day to save a $5,000 down payment for a house.
He and his wife, Sue, now married for 50 years, never opened that note he wrote while trapped underground.
“We never watched it after we wrote it,” he said. “We never needed it.”
Eight of the nine miners have settled lawsuits against the mine, the company that operates it and the company that certifies the cards used by the miners.
The second group of nine miners who rushed to safety when the mine flooded that night also shared the settlement.
Under this settlement, attribution to minors remains confidential and the companies have not admitted any negligence.
Miners are responsible for a lasting legacy in their industry.
An investigation concluded that a lack of accurate underground maps led to the accident. This has led to a push to collect, digitize and archive old mining maps as well as overhaul of state laws aimed at making coal mining safer.
“They changed that so it wouldn’t happen again,” Unger said proudly.
He seems to have no problem returning to where he nearly died 20 years ago.
Two days after being rescued, he was back – without the crowds and the blinding lights.
“I wanted to see… what was left over there,” he said.
On a sunny morning last April, Unger returned, this time clutching the cane he now uses after breaking his leg in a farming accident last year.
He sometimes speaks in a soft voice when talking about the ordeal. He said he believed a higher power – and not just those on the surface – had a role to play in ensuring the miners returned home.
“We should all have died here,” he said. “It ended up being a complete miracle when it could have been a complete disaster.”