In the hours and days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, rumors swirled that rescuers at the scene of the World Trade Center had miraculously found survivors in the rubble of the collapsed buildings. Sadly, each rumor and story was eventually proved false as the hopeful search for the living turned into the grim recovery of the dead. For many Americans, the failures to find any living were the most difficult parts of those days, with no chance at a positive emotional release.
A little over ten months later, and not far from the scene where United Flight 93 went down after a fight between its hijackers and some of the passengers, Americans once again had to relive that awful feeling of seeing rescuers desperately working to save lives, this time nine men trapped far underground in a coal mine near Somerset, Pennsylvania. Unlike those unsuccessful efforts at the World Trade Center, all nine were brought out 77 hours later tired, dirty and physically battered by their ordeal, but alive and greeted by worldwide jubilation.
Thanks to intensive media coverage, we all know of the desperate attempts to reach the men. The broken drill bits that frustrated the men pounding furiously at the rocky earth to reach the area where the trapped men were believed to be, the experts warning that the miners couldn’t live for much longer and the periodic tapping from below that signaled it was still a rescue operation and not the more grim counterpart, the recovery operation. What happened below, however, most of us don’t know.
Our Story: 77 Hours that Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith, by the Quecreek Miners and Jeff Goodell (Hyperion, 176 pages, $19.95), is a firsthand account by the nine trapped in the Quecreek Mine, one filled with moments of abject terror, acceptance of a likely fate and a fight to remain alive. Woven in are the stories of the rescuers and the families who suffered through days of not knowing whether their husbands, fathers and brothers would return home. At its heart, however, Our Story chronicles how those nine men willed themselves to live.
Their story began on July 24, 2002, when, while working deep underground, the wall of an adjacent mine was pierced and water began pouring through. The men knew they were in immediate trouble. Although we tend to believe that cave-ins and rock bursts pose the most danger to miners, coal miners were tell you that they fear flooding and fire much more. Within hours, up to 80 million gallons of water poured into the mine and trapped them in the highest part. Without rescue, they would either slowly suffocate to death or drown in the rising water.
It may be a cliché to say that in times like those a man begins thinking of the life he has lived and that which he never will, but clichés are often grounded in fact. As the nine huddled in the narrow shaft that provided them temporary relief from the slowly rising water, their thoughts turned to those things that men’s minds do when they face death. In their own words they describe their hopes and fears, the debate over whether to tie their bodies together to make an easier job of locating them in the event of an unsuccessful rescue operation and even grimmer thoughts of when the time came on how to drown themselves with dignity.
“How do you drown with dignity? We talked about it. People fall out of boats and they 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 the water? Because nobody ever takes water into their lungs on purpose. So how do you do that?” questions Mark Popernack at that point. “Do you inhale it like a cigarette? That’s what I was thinking. Do I inhale this water like a cigarette? I decided that when it got up to my neck, I was going to swim out. I never said nothing. But that’s what I decided. Who wants to struggle for that last breath? You’re going to die. There’s no hope. You ain’t going to survive in that much water, even if it would quit coming up, for very long.”
Men as tough as the Quecreek miners, however, weren’t given to that kind of thinking for too long. Even as their hope of rescue — despite the fact they heard the drilling above them — slowly faded, they tried hard to keep their spirits up until finally one of the two drills working above them managed to enter near their mine shaft and through a microphone establish communication. Not long after they were brought up to cheers and the embraces of their families.
It seems every story told today is described as one of ordeal, but if any truly deserves that description it is the saga of the miners and their families. The one told by these men of the earth is also of courage and determination and compelling even if we know they survived. It was also the happy ending that many Americans needed and Our Story tells it admirably.
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