Miners recall waiting during rescue attempt

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 29, 2002

The Associated Press

SOMERSET, Pa. -- Trapped 240 feet underground in a flooded mine for three days, one thought kept creeping back into Blaine Mayhugh's mind: He didn't kiss his wife goodbye before he left for work.

As more than 150 rescue workers and neighbors above ground struggled to reach them, he and eight other coal miners fought to keep their heads above the cold water, huddled together for warmth, and hoped.

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"It was the only day in my life I never kissed my wife before I went to work. It had to be the day," he said Sunday, breaking down into sobs as he stood with his arms around his wife, Leslie.

In a rescue that transfixed the nation, all nine miners were pulled safely from the Quecreek Mine in rural western Pennsylvania after water from an abandoned mine flooded the shaft where they were working.

A desperate rescue operation with tons of heavy equipment and 18 medical helicopters finally paid off when rescuers reached the miners Sunday morning and pulled them up a narrow shaft, one by one, in a yellow cylindrical capsule.

"What took you guys so long?" the miners said when they spoke to rescuers for the first time. They reportedly asked for chewing tobacco and beer -- which doctors wouldn't allow. And they were ravenously hungry.

At the rescue site, workers cheered and danced, and the Sipesville Fire Hall, where the families of the men had been gathering, burst into celebration at the news they were all alive.

As each was slowly raised, one by one, through the narrow hole in a 7-foot-tall yellow cage, at least two gave a thumbs up. Their coal-covered faces managed smiles. Rescuers greeted them with applause and shouted out nicknames.

But underground, Mayhugh described a nightmarish scene: The men tied themselves together so they would "live or die as a group." On Thursday, when the water in the shaft was rising, he asked his boss for a pen.

"I said, 'I want to write my wife and kids to tell them I love them,"' said Mayhugh, choking back tears.

"Everybody had strong moments," he said. "At any certain time maybe one guy got down, and then the rest pulled together and then that guy would get back up and maybe somebody else would feel a little weaker. But it was a team effort. That's the only way it could've been."