Fateful day started with huge noise
Harry Mayhugh was operating a coal scoop at Quecreek Mine the morning of July 24, 2002, when he heard a “huge” noise.
Thomas Foy, his father-in-law, came and told him they had to leave; they had cut into an old mine. Foy told Mayhugh to get the other miners so they could “get the heck out of here.”
Fourteen men were working in the mine that morning when a wall of cold water rushed in from an adjacent, abandoned mine.
Five of the crew – Barry Carlson, Douglas Custer, Dave and Ryan Petree, and Lawrence Summerville – ran for their lives. They were the lucky ones.
Nine others – Foy, Mayhugh, Randy Fogle, John Unger, John Phillippi, Dennis Hall, Robert Pugh Jr., Mark Popernack and Ron Hileman – could not escape the tide of 72 million gallons of water, powerful enough to sweep away tons of equipment that blocked escape routes.
Popernack was loading coal onto shuttle cars. When he turned back to the continuous mining machine 45 minutes later, he couldn’t see its lights in the dark water.
As water swirled up to his waist, Popernack turned and screamed to warn Hall, who was driving the shuttle car. Hall tried to drive away, but the onrushing water hit him in the back and shorted the car’s electrical power.
Popernack got separated from the group by the oncoming water. Cold, tired and struggling to breathe, he tried to calm himself and think of a way to reach the other miners.
He tried wrapping the water hose from the mining machine around his waist, hoping to wade through the water, but the hose slipped off. He took J-hooks from roof bolt plates and taped them to his wrists so he could cross the river by jumping from plate to plate. But the water was too swift, and he turned back.
Finally, Fogle started a scoop and extended it over the water toward Popernack, who jumped into the bucket and was carried across to the other miners.
The men retreated to the No. 4 entry. The water rose so quickly that they had to crane their necks to breathe.
By then, the oxygen level had dropped to 17 percent. The men felt lethargic; some had chest pains.
They estimated they had about an hour to live. A few tied themselves to one another so they would be found together if they drowned. They wrote farewell letters to loved ones, put them into a plastic bucket and taped it shut.
The group moved to the more secure No. 1 entry, where they huddled together, sitting back-to-back for warmth. Every 30 minutes, they hammered on a roof bolt to signal the surface.
The water slowly receded.
At 5:06 a.m. the next day, rescue crews above ground finished drilling a 6 1⁄2-inch air hole that immediately improved the air quality.
Fogle knew he needed to notify people on the surface. The miners took off their hard hats to read the instructions for a federally mandated signaling system glued inside. Using the rescue signals, Fogle banged three times on the drill bit. Another miner struck the bit nine times to signal the number of men who were trapped.
The rescuers answered by rotating the bit, then raising and lowering it slowly to indicate the message had been received.
The men were kept alive by a compressor that continuously pumped fresh air into the shaft, creating positive pressure to keep out the tainted air.
“The key was to keep the compressor running the whole time,” said Joe Sbaffoni, director of the Bureau of Mine Safety for the Department of Environmental Protection.
Rescuers drilled until the bit broke, and the around-the-clock rescue effort came to a halt. A new bit located in West Virginia had to be trucked in.
The trapped men, who had heard no drilling for 18 hours, knew there was a problem.
After 77 hours, the rescue crew broke through. An 8 1⁄2-foot steel cage carried the men 240 feet to the surface, one by one.
Fogle was the first to reach the surface at 12:55 a.m. Popernack was the last man out at 2:45 a.m.
The nine men – exhausted, cold, hungry and blackened with coal dust – emerged from the pitch dark into the bright lights that illuminated the drilling site and television cameras that had broadcast the rescue operation around the world.