Light At The End Of The Tunnel

This is a true story, written to a Chatham Writers Group Prompt: “Light At The End Of The Tunnel”.

Lights at Both Ends of the Tunnel

Wednesday 24 July 2002, Lincoln Township Pennsylvania.  Eighteen miners of the Black Wolf Coal Company are working the night shift at the Quecreek Mine, 240 feet below the earth’s surface, drilling and removing coal from the rich Upper Kittanning Seam.  The miners are split into two teams of 9, working two portals on the left side of the  main shaft, one team in Left Portal 1, the second in Left Portal 2.  Both portals are about a mile from the mine entrance.  At 9:50 PM, the mine phone in Left Portal 2 starts to ring.  The team leader answers the phone and is stunned by what he is hearing.  On the phone is the team leader of the group working in Left Portal 1.  While drilling the portal 1 team opened a hole into the shaft of an unmapped, long ago abandoned mine.  Sixty million gallons of water are now flowing into Portal 1.  He is urging the Portal 2 leader to get his team out immediately, before the mine floods.  The team in portal 2 bolts for the main shaft.  An hour later they burst out of the mine entrance into the cool July night and turn to wait the exit of the portal 1 team.  Ten minutes pass and no one else leaves the mine.  A 911 call is made, 9 miners are either trapped or dead.  However the portal 1 team is very much alive and fighting against time to survive.  With the entrance to portal 1 flooding to quickly for them to exit, attempts were made to escape through 2 smaller tunnels that led to the mine entrance, both were flooded.  The team made its way back to the end of Portal 1 and settled on a ledge above the water to await their fate or rescue.

The scene on the surface is one of controlled bedlam.  Teams were established to set up pumps to begin pumping the millions of gallons of water that flooded the mine, and to begin drilling a 6.5” hole to provide air for the men below, not yet knowing if they were still alive. To create an escape tunnel, a huge 30” diameter drill was requested from a mine in West Virginia, it would arrive the next day.   The families of the missing men gathered at the local firehouse to console each other and to await any word from the rescue teams.  As word spread volunteers from other mines in the region rushed to Lincoln Township to assist in any way possible, to ensure that the rescue efforts would continue unabated.  When the 911 call was made, local news channels broadcast a breaking news alert.  By 11:00 PM, news crews were on site and began reporting the latest details, of which there were very few.  

The breaking news story about the Quecreek Mine spread rapidly.  For the next 3 days the eyes of the  world would be watching the efforts to rescue the group of men who were now being referred to as the Quecreek 9.  However, no eyes would be focused with more blazing intensity than the eyes of those living in Western Pennsylvania.  This drama playing out in rural Lincoln Township was deeply personal.  Everyone in that region knew someone – a family member, a neighbor, a friend, who worked in a mine.  There were virtually no degrees of separation from those trapped in Quecreek.  With televisions and radios always on and in close proximity,  Western Pennsylvanians were anxious for news from the mine.  The level of intensity is difficult to imagine, and there is only one way that it can be described.  Shortly after 5:00 AM on Thursday, July 25th, it was announced that the airline had penetrated into the portal where the miners were thought to be.  There were three solid smacks on the pipe from deep in the earth.  The collective sob that was generated in Western Pennsylvania caused the leaves to turn in one direction on the inhale, and blow back in the other direction on the exhale.  This scenario was repeated again at 11:30 AM that day when 9 clear, distinct bangs were detected on the air pipe, indicating all 9 were alive.  

The miners underground were not out of the woods however.  The 9 wraps on the pipe would be the last that would be heard from them as the rising water in the shaft prevented the miners from communicating further.  Drilling of the 30” diameter escape tunnel began that evening.  At 240’ below, the Quecreek 9 were able to sense the vibrations.  They also noticed that the water was no longer rising.  A lunch pail floated to the miners, now they had a corned beef sandwich, a Diet Coke and two cans of Mountain Dew to sustain them.  Over the course of the next two days, the tensions would ebb and flow.   A broken drill and broken pipe complicated the rescue process with repair delays.  The rescue efforts stretched through Friday night into Saturday.  There were no further communication from the men in the hole.

 Through the long evening and in to Saturday, all remained news starved.  Again, equipment failures prolonged the process and work continued through the day into the evening.  At 10:20 PM on Saturday, July 27, a news flash reported the rescue tunnel drill broke through to the portal, a phone line was dropped down the 240’ tunnel.  All of the TV stations had their cameras glued to the crowd and equipment around the escape tunnel.  At 11:00 PM the cameras caught the images of volunteers pumping fists in the air, cheering, crying, hugging.  The news reporters announced, voices breaking with raw emotion,  that all 9 were alive and over the next few hours would emerge into the electric light of life at the end of the tunnel.

The most remarkable thing that this near tragedy showcased was how so many people from so many different walks of life were able to join together in a crisis to serve the common good.  The metaphoric tunnels of personal biases and beliefs, all evaporated to the light of achieving a goal that was common to all.  People supported each other, offered what comfort and help that they could.  We have more in common with each other than not.  With each other’s help, we can emerge from any dark tunnel to the light.

Sources:  Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune Review from Sunday, 7/28/02.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers


Headline from Pittsburgh Tribune Review July 28, 2002 after all 9 miners were rescued.
Photo of rescuers greeting the Quecreek 9 as they emerge from “The Hole”.

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