Sticking together key to survival for rescued miners

Three of nine men remain in hospital after spending three days underground

`Tied themselves together'

July 29, 2002|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUECREEK, Pa. - Safe in the embrace of the families to whom they had already written final notes of love, the nine men freed yesterday morning from their flooded coal mine hungrily sought what they had missed most during the three days they were trapped underground: a beer, a chew of tobacco and the surest sign from above that one is alive for another day.

"He couldn't wait to see the sunrise ... and he wouldn't sleep until he saw it," said John Moryken, a spokesman at the hospital where Robert "Boogie" Pugh spent his first hours out of the Quecreek Mine in which he and eight co-workers were trapped for three days.

Only three of the "niners," as they're being called, remained in the hospital yesterday, and all were in remarkably good condition despite their cold and nearly fatal captivity.

As they returned to a community, and indeed to an entire nation, that was captivated by their survival and oh-so-ready to bask in their happy-ending story, details of their death-defying experience began emerging like the elements of a Hollywood movie.

The men had breached a wall to an adjacent abandoned mine during their Wednesday night shift, causing millions of gallons of water to rush toward them.

Within minutes, they were nearly swamped by a torrent traveling at an estimated 60 mph, said Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, relaying an account by miner Dennis Hall. The water level rose so high that they had to tip their heads back to avoid drowning.

The situation seemed so desperate that the miners began planning their final minutes of life: They would die together, and they would leave behind some consolation for their loved ones.

"I didn't think I was going to see my wife and kids again," a tearful Harry "Blaine" Mayhugh said yesterday morning as he was released from a local hospital after being treated for mild hypothermia.

Huddling with his eight fellow miners to preserve body heat in the sub-60-degree air and water, the men decided to leave what Schweiker called "farewell notes" to be found with their bodies.

"They passed a pen around and took makeshift cardboard from ... boxes in the mine," said Schweiker, who visited with the nine men in their hospital rooms yesterday. "They gently placed them in a bucket and attached it to something in the mine."

Linked together

As the water coursed rapidly past, the men made another decision.

"They tied themselves together," Schweiker said, "so they would be found together."

At one point, the water was so obviously the pathway to death that the miners figured they should try to wall themselves in, Schweiker said, apparently feeling that suffocation would be preferable to drowning.

Instead, the rescue work that had begun above ground - in tandem with the men's actions below - led to their survival. Crews quickly began pumping water out of the mine. They also started drilling a 6-inch-wide hole to where the men were trapped. Compressed air was pumped down, creating an air bubble that allowed the men to continue breathing, and pressurized the atmosphere to keep water out of their space.

The compressed air was heated, helping to keep hypothermia at bay.

Even though the men spent the entire three days without food, sleep or water and were in 3 to 4 feet of water, they survived long enough for crews to drill a 30-inch-wide rescue shaft from which they were hoisted one by one early yesterday morning.

That the men emerged from the ordeal in fairly good condition is a marvel, doctors said. The three who remained hospitalized yesterday were there mainly as a precaution, they said: One has a pre-existing heart problem that doctors wanted to monitor, another developed what doctors believe is an explainable and treatable irregular heartbeat, and the third was treated in a decompression chamber because of a slight case of "the bends" from having been rapidly withdrawn from a pressurized atmosphere.

The men were doing so well just hours after their rescue that doctors went against normal practice and granted them about half of their first requests: beer and "chew."

"We usually don't allow it," Dr. Russell Dumire, a trauma surgeon who treated six of the miners, said as he stood in front of the Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, with a prominent "no smoking" sign at its entrance. "But a couple asked for it, so we made an exception."

Area residents who had heard about the endearingly characteristic request of the miners had dropped off cans of chewing tobacco at hospitals for the men.

But no beer was permitted, at least while the men were being treated. Dumire said the miners were dehydrated from three days without food or water, and alcohol would only exacerbate the problem.

The men, who probably will never have to pick up another bar tab again, mostly remained out of the public eye yesterday. Some made brief remarks while being discharged from the hospital, some let others speak for them.

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