July 24, 2012

The Quecreek Mine Disaster

Ten years ago today, 18 coal miners were working the Quecreek mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, when one of the crews of 9 breached a wall separating Quecreek from the adjacent flooded and abandoned Saxman mine. The other crew escaped from the quickly flooding mine, but their hapless colleagues had to retreat to high ground in the mine to avoid drowning.

Thus began a drama that would see the 9 miners safely rescued three days later. The rescue effort gripped the nation that July weekend in 2002. The terror attacks of the year before were still fresh in the minds of Americans, who sorely needed an inspiring story that ended happily.

Shortly after the rescue was effected, I began writing the poem below, in which I attempted to tell the complete story of the Quecreek mine accident and rescue. The poem went through a number of revisions to improve the poetry and verity of the poem.

On this tenth anniversary, it seems appropriate to reprint “The Quecreek Mine Disaster” here. You can also find the poem, along with a longer explanation of it on my Web site. That page includes a link to an earlier version of the poem.

This week, a number of events will celebrate the anniversary. More information can be found here.

The Quecreek Mine Disaster
by Lionel Deimel

The C Prime Seam ran out to Somerset,
And mining coal was long a practice there;
The Quecreek mine was but the latest hole
Where Pennsylvanians laid the black rock bare.

MinerThe team of nine was working Wednesday night—
A practiced group with decades underground;
Unwittingly, they cut into a wall,
Where water-filled, abandoned halls they found.
On maps, the Saxman mine was not too close—
Those maps, through guile or carelessness, had lied;
One miner ran to find the telephone;
To miners far away, “Get out!”  he cried.
The passage out led down, then up again,
So men and water shared a swift descent;
But water won the frenzied downward race,
And men knew what the flooded chamber meant—
No longer was escape a goal to seek,
For life itself became their only thought;
To higher ground they crawled back up in pain;
Against cascading flood, they bravely fought.

They tied themselves together with a rope,
And so would live or perish as a team;
If dying was to be their lot that day,
They’d find their rest together in that seam.
At last, they reached a summit in the mine,
Whose ceiling, from the waters, was unwet;
Their pangs of terror turned to thoughts of death,
Unmindful of events in Somerset.
The miners’ plight, of course, was known above
By townsfolk yielding not to dark despair;
They guessed where savvy miners had to go
And drilled to send compressed and heated air.
The rescue plan was not a simple one—
They couldn’t let the mine with water fill,
So pumps would have a crucial role to play,
And, too, a summoned West Virginia drill.
On Thursday morn, the six-inch bit broke through,
Below the ground two hundred forty feet,
And banging on the pipe soon made it clear:
There was a deep-mine rescue to complete!
On Thursday afternoon, the big rig came
To drill a shaft a rescue cage could thread;
That job would take a half a day or more
To reach the barely living or the dead.
The miners’ many loved ones all about
Were gathered up in Sipesville’s fire hall
To comfort one another, weep, and hope,
And steel themselves, whatever might befall.
The world’s attention now was on that mine—
Reporters pressed for facts that they could share;
The governor was ready to oblige
With information, confidence, and prayer.
The rescue hole was started Thursday night,
But trouble struck it well before the dawn—
The bit had gone one hundred feet, then broke;
Yet, through it all, the water pumps pumped on.
The men had heard the drilling sounds above
And dared to think salvation close at hand;
When hopeful, distant rumblings fell away,
Once more, they feared they’d made their final stand.
They huddled close together for their heat,
Encouraging, in turn, the faint of heart;
On scraps, they penned brief notes to leave behind,
Their feelings for their loved ones to impart.
Alas, the bit had stuck inside the shaft,
And hours passed by with progress at a halt;
Another drill began another hole
Until the first could finish its assault.
On Saturday, the drill bored ever down,
As pumping made the water level fall;
With drilling done, a phone was sent below,
Where miners shouted, “OK! One and all!”
So resurrections followed Sunday morn,
As, one-by-one, the men were raised above,
Released from three-days’ prison’s bonds of gloom
And saved by acts of sacrifice and love.

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