The Quecreek miners tell how they prepared for death and then together found the strength to survive
November 18, 2002
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
“It will take time to get over,” says miner Harry Mayhug (second from right) of his close call.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we faced death,” says Harry Mayhug Jr. (third from right, with, from left, John Unger, Thomas Foy, Mark Popernack, Dennis Hall, John Phillippi, Randy Fogle, Robert Pugh Jr. and Ronald Hileman in Laurel Hill State Park on Oct. 28).
On a cold October morning, nine men gather in Laurel Hill State Park in Somerset, Penn., for a photo shoot, sharing jokes and chewing tobacco as they pull on the miner's uniform of blue jumpsuit, hard-toed boots and lighted helmet. But the outfit no longer fits as comfortably as it once did. Ever since the men -crew leader Randy Fogle, 44, Thomas "Tucker" Foy, 53, his son-in-law Harry Blame Mayhugh Jr., 32, Dennis "Harpo" Hall, 49, Ronald "Hound Dog" Hileman, 50, Mark "Moe" Popernack, 41, John "Flathead" Phillippi, 36, Robert "Boogie" Pugh Jr., 50, and John Unger, 52- spent more than three days last July trapped in the Quecreek Mine outside Somerset, they have striven to distance themselves from their near-death experience. "My head still isn't a hundred percent there," says Mayhugh, who has been on medication to help him sleep, a problem shared by many of the other miners since the accident. "It will take time to get over it completely."
As part of the healing process, the miners told their story to Jeff Goodell, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, for the new book Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith. Their ordeal began on the afternoon of Wed., July 24. They drilled without incident, working a mile and a half into the mine in a section 240 ft. below ground with a roof height of less than 5 ft. and a temperature of 55°F. Then, at about 9 p.m., Moe accidentally cut through a wall into an abandoned mine that had become flooded. Seventy million gallons of water surged into Quecreek, turning it into a raging river-and leaving the men in a desperate battle to find dry land. All nine eventually made it. Huddled together for warmth, they struggled to breathe -the water had cut off the ventilation system.
By 3 a.m. rescuers, who were told what had happened by a second crew that had escaped, had drilled a shaft into the mine through which they pumped air that would deliver oxygen, stem the water's ascent and buy time until they devised a rescue plan. The miners tapped on the drill bit -one tap for each man- to tell rescuers they were alive. "I heard them banging in response," Boogie recalls in the book. But, as the exclusive excerpt below details, their ordeal was far from over.
Underground, the pressurized air may have slowed the water's advance, but it didn't stop it.
Blaine: The hardest thing was seeing that water coming up. Just this slow climb up the mine. So within a couple of hours, we went from thinking we were going to suffocate to thinking we were going to drown.
Flathead: At one point we started running out of bricks for the walls [built to hold back the water]. When I went down [to a lower point] to grab some more, I saw that the water was way up. It was ankle-deep. Ten, 15 minutes later, it was up to my waist.
Unger: While we was building that last wall, Fogle came down. He looked at the water and he said, "What the hell you been doing?" He was kind of -you know, stressed. I said, "What do you think I've been doing? I'm trying to build this wall. And it ain't working."
Boogie said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I don't know. I think I'm going to die." Blaine just looked at us and said, "I'm too young to die."
Randy: Blaine asked me if I had a pen. He didn't tell me what it was for, but I knew -he was going to write a note to his family.
The men eventually took refuge in a 30-ft. by 70-ft. area. They had found bottles of water but virtually no food. The only light came from the lamps on their helmets, which they kept off most of the time, and a small lantern.
Hound Dog: It was like a bad dream. I could not believe this was happening. I thought of my brother-in-law, who passed away at 49. I know how hard that was on the family. And then I'd be another one, 49.
Blaine: I thought about my wife. I told the guys, "I didn't kiss her goodbye today. She was mowing the lawn, and I was late, and I just waved." I always kiss her good-bye, but for some reason I didn't that day. That bothered me a lot. Of all the days not to kiss her, you know?
Blaine found a cardboard box that he used for paper to write his family.
Blaine: I'd seen lots of reports of old mine accidents. And they'd say how they found a father and son hugging each other when they dug them up, and they'd have written their farewell letters. I remembered that and thought it was a good idea.
I didn't say anything to anyone about what I wrote. And I still haven't. When I finished, I asked if anyone else wanted to write something, and everyone's, like, yeah. So I passed the pen to my father-in-law.
Tucker: When I started writing the note, I just broke down. I couldn't take it no more.
Moe: I didn't want to write that note because I wasn't giving up hope. But that water kept coming. I took the pen. I was thinking about my family. I was thinking about my kids a lot. I wasn't angry. I was just thinking, Christ, I'm going to die.
Randy: The one thing I thought about was that I would never be able to walk my daughter down the aisle. Just the idea of never seeing my family again, that was the worst for me. I wish I could have told my kids I loved them more often. And my parents, I wish I could have told them more.
"I can still see the water creeping up and coming," Unger says. "That stays with me."
Unger: When you write that note, that's the bottom line. You've played all your cards. There's no way out. I made a promise to my wife that I would never do that, I would always come out of the mine one way or the other, and that I would never, ever write that letter. But I wrote it.
Flathead: Blaine grabbed a plastic bucket. We put all the notes into the bucket and sealed it up with electrical tape. Then we wired it to the bolter [a piece of machinery] so it wouldn't float away.
Almost as nightmarish as the thought of drowning was the idea of their bodies floating through the caverns of the mine.
Tucker: I found a piece of cable and said, "We might as well be tied together so they don't have to go hunting for our bodies."
Tucker tied one end to the bolter. Then he slipped the cable through his belt and passed it on. Blame, Hound Dog, Flathead and Boogie all tied in. Moe, Harpo, Unger and Randy refused.
Moe: Somebody said, "Come on, tie up, tie up." And I said, "No, when the water gets up to my waist, I'll tie." I wasn't giving up yet.
Many of the men had seen friends die in roof falls. They had had close calls themselves. But nobody was prepared to drown.
Flathead: I wished we'd just run out of air and pass out because I didn't know how I would do this. Are you going to put your head tight to the roof and try to keep as much air in your lungs as you can? Or are you just going to go under?
Harpo: I wasn't going to sit there and wait for that water to come up and drown me. That's why I wouldn't tie myself with everybody, because I wasn't going to sit there and listen to all of my buddies, my family, choke and gag. I was going to take my last breath and dive in, and when my body figured it needed more air to come up, I ain't going to get none, I'm gone.
Boogie: All I kept thinking about is getting myself up against the wall of coal and breathing my last breath.
I kept thinking about how I was going to do this. Because I'm a Catholic. Harpo said, "Boys, when it comes up to our necks, don't mind me, I'm just going to slip under." And I thought maybe that was suicide by slipping under. Catholics don't believe in suicide. So I figured, I'm going to raise my head and breathe the last air I can breathe and maybe a miracle will happen. But I ain't going under until I have to.
Moe: How do you drown with dignity? We talked about it. People fall out of boats and drown, but when you know it's going to happen to you, how do you make yourself drown? Am I going to just start swallowing this water? Do you inhale it like a cigarette? I decided that when it got up to my neck, I was going to swim out. Who wants to struggle for that last breath?
For most of the men, their final reckoning was private. Blaine was the first to express his deepest fear.
Unger: Blaine said, "Hey, John. I've got a question and you're the only one that can answer this for me." So I said, "Okay." He said, "I'm not baptized. Do you think I'll go to heaven?"
It was heavy, you know. He was crying. What are you going to say? "Well, nope, some big news for you, Blaine. You're going to hell, buddy. You're toast." Plus, you don't want him flipping out down there. You don't want everybody going over the edge. So I thought about it and I was sincere when I answered him. I said, "Well, Blaine, this is only in my world. But in John Unger's world, I honestly believe that God loves you whether you're baptized or not. You're a good guy, you try to do what's right. And I truly believe that God will take care of us, and that you will go to heaven."
Blaine: Unger made me feel a little better. The one thing I asked God -I wanted to get a glimpse of my family before I was gone. I hoped it would be like the movies, when your soul rises up through the air and you can see what's down below. I just wanted one quick look, I just wanted to know that my family was okay.
When the water was about 20 ft. below them, the men had to decide whether to move. There was another area that was only a few feet higher, but it could buy them some time.
Moe: I said, "Randy, we got to go." He's, like, "Yeah, we got to go." And he told everybody to get up, they were moving to higher ground. I think somebody said, "What for? We're going to die anyway." And Randy said, "No, it ain't over yet." He always encouraged us. Randy don't give up.
Flathead: I was thinking, We're just going to prolong the agony. What's the difference?
Moe: My opinion is that some of the guys just gave up then. They were tired, cold and they'd had enough. They was going to drown right there and they wasn't going to go to higher ground. I didn't understand that.
Randy and Moe prevailed. The crew relocated, taking the bucket of letters with them.
Moe: When we left, the mood changed a little. I don't know why. But as we were walking, Blaine cracked a joke that made everybody laugh. He looked at us and said, "Any of you guys want to have sex before we die?"
Aboveground, on Thursday afternoon, the families got their first look at the rescue site -a cow pasture where a drilling rig with a 30-in. bit to create an escape shaft was being set up.
Annette Fogle: When they first asked if we wanted to visit the site, I didn't want to go. My son Matthew talked me into it.
While I was out there, all that went through my mind was the fact that there's 240 ft. of dirt there, and underneath it all is Randy. I knew they were getting the air down, I knew that the big drill was there, too. I didn't need to understand how it worked. I just wanted them to get the hole down and get them out of there.
Sandy Popernack: When I was in [the fire hail, the families' gathering place], I had a very pessimistic view of what was happening. I just thought, there's no way that [Moe] can be alive. Then I went to that site and saw everyone working so hard. Everyone seemed so positive that he was coming out of there alive. I felt a lot better.
After the drilling started at about 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, there was little for the families to do but wait.
Leslie Mayhugh: I decided Blaine was going to need something to wear when he got out. So I asked one of the guys, "Can you please get me Blaine's clothes?" [Afterward] I sat just smelling his T-shirt that he'd had on that day. I wanted to be close to him, but I was also looking for some kind of sign. I was sure if he was dead, I would have known it somehow. But I didn't get no signs, so that made me happy.
From their final redoubt, the highest point in that section of the mine, Randy checked the water level every half hour.
Blaine: I'm sitting there, and Randy comes up and says, "I think the water stopped rising." I said, "Don't be bull---- ing me, Randy." I thought maybe that, his being the boss, he's trying to keep your hopes up. And he's, like, "Seriously, Blaine, it stopped." From there, everybody was taking turns going to check.
Boogie: We thought at that time maybe we won't drown after all. That was a hell of a good feeling.
But the water's retreat was so slow it was hard to keep their hopes up.
Hound Dog: Guys were getting very cold. Hypothermia-that was something we were scared of. When somebody would start shivering, teeth chattering, we'd get that guy in the middle and we'd all sit around him, or he'd lay down and we'd lay on top of him.
Blaine: At one point, I don't know how many hours we'd laid there, I heard this rumbling above us. I said, "I hear the drill! They started drilling!" A couple of the guys were, like, "No, they did not." And I said, "Listen, listen." Then Fogle heard it.
Flathead: The water started going down, but we didn't hear anything for hours. It was, like, did they give up on us? Then we heard the big drill. We knew they were coming to get us.
For hours the sound of the drill lulled them. Then it stopped.
Randy: Hound Dog said, "What the hell happened?" I said, "Either he broke a bit, or he's pulling it up to change a bit." I said, "He'll be back, don't worry, they're coming."
Harpo: I said to myself, "Dear God, please don't give up on us now."
The drill bit had broken, sinking the men's families into despair.
Marge Mayhugh: I went to the site on Saturday, and I totally lost it. All I remember saying is, "My son is dead, you'll bring him up dead and I might as well be dead, too."
Leslie Mayhugh: Late Saturday afternoon, I talked to my preacher about services for Blaine and my father. I said, "I'm telling you now, while I'm in my right state of mind, do them together. If they die together, they're going to be buried together."
It took about 18 hours for the drill bit to be replaced. By Saturday afternoon, it had reached a depth of about 230 ft. But the water level in the mine was still so high that breaking through might have punctured the pocket of compressed air protecting the miners, unleashing the water. So rescuer Duane Yost shut the machine off and waited for the water to recede.
At about 8:30 p.m., Yost started drilling again, going down only a foot or two, then stopping the bit, blowing air and water through the hole to clear out the cuttings, then drilling another foot or two. Yost was afraid that if he didn't keep the hole clean, the bit might get wedged in the shaft, rendering it useless to rescue the men. "At the end, I was going down six inches at a time," Yost recalls. The [rescue] crew kept their eyes on the air pressure readings and the hydraulic gauge. When both dropped, Yost knew he had broken through to the mine.
This was the moment of truth. They shut down the air compressors, the drill rigs, the water pumps. An audio device [was lowered] into the [air] hole. To make sure the miners could see it, they taped two glow sticks to [it]-one pink, one purple.
Boogie: Suddenly, the air quit. I said, "Hound Dog, go tap on that [air] pipe. Maybe somebody would happen to be going by." This is how we were thinking, like nobody's up there. And Tucker said, "I'll go with you."
Hound Dog: It was dead quiet. I said, "Tuck, bang on that pipe." So he hammered on the pipe nine times. And we put our hands against the drill bit to see if we could feel any vibration coming back. We felt them tap back.
You could hear pipes banging up there, like they were taking the drill apart. So I said to Tucker, "Shine your light up that hole." He's got his light off his hat. I say, "Do you see anything?" "No, I can't see nothing."
[Aboveground, rescue worker Rob] Zaremski clamped on a set of headphones and listened. A team of men slowly lowered the probe into the 6-in. air shaft. Zaremski called out, over and over, the words the deep mine rescue team had told him to use: "Can you hear me? Stay where you are." Then a few seconds later: "Can you hear me? Stay where you are."
Now "I look at each day differently," says Fogle (home with wife Annette and dog Cinnamon).
At the same time some 50 ft. from the air hole, the drill for the rescue shaft broke through into a section of the mine on the other side of one of the walls the miners had built.
Hound Dog: I heard a hissing noise. I said to Tuck, "Is that air coming through that wall?" He said, "I don't hear nothing."
He's still looking up that air hole, trying to shine his light up there. He's hollering, "Hey. Ho. Hey up there. Anybody up there?"
I thought, "I'm going down and figure out why that wall is hissing." So I took my hammer and I got the top block knocked out. As soon as I looked through, the water was just gushing out of the 30-in. hole they drilled; probably underground streams that they were drilling through.
Tucker said, "I'll be damned." So he come running. He looked through and said, "There's the [rescue] hole." He started tearing more of the wall out so we could get through. And I said, "Well, I'm going up to get the guys."
So I walked up. Everybody's still sacked out. I said, "Hey, who wants to go home?"