A year after disaster, miners face stress

The Morning Call

Every single day Thomas ''Tucker'' Foy thinks back to the 77 hours he spent underground, fighting for his life after a flood trapped him and eight other coal miners on June 24, 2002.

''Some days are better than others and I try and take life one day at a time,'' the tough-as-nails coal miner says. ''It's not the physical stuff that's hard … it's my nerves and stuff.''

The Quecreek Mine reopened in November; but Foy hasn't gone back to work there -- and doesn't plan to.

Every single day Bill and Lori Arnold think about the nine miners trapped 240 feet below a cow pasture on the edge of their dairy farm.

The couple plans a memorial there that includes a visitors center, a re-creation of the mine, 31 life-size bronze sculptures of rescue workers and a 7-foot bronze sculpture of a miner.

So far, the Arnolds have raised only $10,000 toward its $2.3 million cost. Each day, it seems, their task gets harder.

''The further from the rescue, people are less and less committed,'' Bill Arnold said. ''They don't want to dedicate as much time and money to it and it's falling back on my family to do.''

A year after the improbable rescue of the Quecreek Nine, some people here, especially the miners, are trying to get past the horrors and stress of those desperate 77 hours -- and get on with their lives.

But others, such as the Arnolds, are trying to hold onto the miracle they say brought people together and reaffirmed their faith in God -- and hold off a growing tide of apathy and controversy.

Several of the miners are suing the mining company, arguing officials should have known an abandoned mine filled with millions of gallons of water was closer than old maps indicated; an insurance company is threatening to cut off the miner's workers' compensation benefits because of the $150,000 they received for a subsequent television movie; one of the rescuers, Robert Long, became embroiled in a war of words with the miners and committed suicide in June.

''There's lawyers trying to get rich over this,'' snarled Ed Popernack, the father of miner Mark ''Moe'' Popernack. ''They're like vultures going over a mess of bones.''

Today, and for the next several days, there will be events and festivities at the Arnolds' farm and in nearby Windber at the Coal Heritage Center to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the rescue, which started on July 24 and ended on July 28.

At the heart of every celebration will be the miners. Their fame may be fading as time ticks by, but for now, especially in economically depressed Somerset County, their star shines brightly.

Joseph Sbaffoni is determined ''nothing bad comes out of Quecreek.''

He was chief of the Bituminous Mine Safety Division of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety during the rescue. In most mine disasters, he said, the end result is dead miners.

''I want Quecreek to remain a positive,'' Sbaffoni said. ''To go through something like that … to see all nine come out alive when most outcomes aren't so good … well, anyone who doesn't say it affected their heart and soul isn't human.''

The miners

Over the past 12 months, the miners -- hard-working, God-fearing, tobacco-chewing, family men -- have proven to be all too human. Most are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome, exhibiting symptoms of flashbacks, fear, guilt, sleeping and eating problems.

''Quite a few of us are doctoring'' is how Ron ''Hound Dog'' Hileman put it.

By doctoring, he means therapy and, in some cases, medication. And while the men talk to their doctors about what they're going through, talking to one another about it still isn't something these macho miners do.

''We don't talk about that when we're together,'' Hileman said, adding he has flashbacks. Asked to describe them, he declined.

Only one of the nine, Randy Fogle, has returned to the Quecreek Mine, where miners get about $15 an hour. The section where they were trapped remains closed.

Just as difficult to deal with as the stress from their underground ordeal has been the stress from the instant, overwhelming celebrity that started as soon as the Quecreek Nine were hoisted, one-by-one, out of the hole -- on live television.

''It was a time, right after Sept. 11 and with Flight 93 being so close (it crashed in Shanksville, about 15 miles from Quecreek), that the country was looking for something positive, for heroes -- and this was it,'' Sbaffoni said.

The Quecreek Nine were the heroes a hungry nation craved: they shared the only food they had, a single sandwich, each man taking a bite and passing it to the next; they huddled together to keep warm; they prayed, cried and laughed together; they wrote letters to their loved ones, thinking their time was up.

And they were humble.

''The rescuers are the real heroes,'' Hileman insisted.

''We're just coal miners … and now we're sort of celebrities,'' Bob ''Boogie'' Pugh said. ''I never talked into a mic in my life before; I guess I'm getting good at it. I was the guy who sat in the last pew in church, the quiet guy.''

The miners were the subject of a television movie and four books. They do corporate speaking engagements and visited the governor's mansion. President Bush met with them when he visited a nearby town.

''Their story is timeless and will always have an impact,'' said Stephen Reich of Reich Publishing and Marketing, a Pittsburgh company that markets the miners. ''But when something else happens, when there's another big story, they'll be pushed to the side a bit.''

Some of the miners are ready to be pushed aside.

''I'm tired of talking to the media about it,'' Mark Popernack said politely when contacted.

Popernack's father, who worked in the coal mines as his father did before him, said his son is holding up under the pressure -- and just wants to get on with his life.

There's a code miners live by, Ed Popernack said, and it's simple: ''Take it as it comes. If it's good, you take it; if it's bad you take it. When you get to a wet place and there's mud all over, and it's tough as a bean, you take it as it comes.''

Don't complain, never let down your fellow miners, don't get a big head.

''They'll be some of them trying to be glory hunters,'' Ed Popernack said. ''You have to be a miner to spot it.''

Has he spotted it in any of the nine?

''I'd rather not say.''

Man behind the miracle

In August, Wally Long was planning to visit his son, Robert Long, for the first time in eight years. They'd been estranged and were starting to ''rebuild our relationship.''

On June 9, Robert Long shot himself in the head as he stood in his driveway, his wife just a few feet away.

''Why now, when we were weeks away from visiting?'' Wally Long, who said he was a deeply religious man, asked God.

Robert Long was the engineer with the global positioning system who rushed to the site, triangulated and calculated and came up with the exact spots to drill the holes to send down air and dig for the miners.

And he was the one rescuer singled out for glory from a pool of more than 800 people. He was written about, interviewed on television, invited to the governor's mansion, met the president, signed the same $150,000 deal as the miners with ABC-Disney for ''The Pennsylvania Miners Story.''

And it was Long -- dubbed the ''man behind the miracle'' -- who found himself in the middle of a controversy.

In an October article in The Washington Post, Foy stated: ''I don't understand why the hell he got the same amount we did.'' In the same article, Long fired back: ''You know what, you bastards, I saved your goddam life and you still don't acknowledge it.''

The controversy bothered Long, according to his father. He ''wasn't looking for praise, but he wasn't looking for scorn.

''He was surprisingly humble about the rescue,'' Wally Long said of his son, whom he described as outgoing, fun-loving and a bit of a braggart. ''He said he just did his job and was glad it came out the way it did.''

Then, Robert Long, 37, killed himself at his home in Jenners Crossroads, about seven miles from the rescue. He left behind a wife and three children -- and a lot of unanswered questions.

The elder Long, a former Somerset County police officer living in Rohnert Park, Calif., where he is a volunteer police chaplain, isn't sure what if anything the controversy over the rescue had to do with his son's death -- and also believes his son killed himself by accident.

He said he was told Robert Long was drunk and had a blood-alcohol ratio of 0.26 percent on the day he died and was arguing with his wife.

''She said, 'Bobby put the gun down, you're frightening me,' and he said, 'You don't think I have the guts to do this' and he brought his arm up to scare her. When you do that, a contraction runs through your arm and if he had his finger on the trigger, it could have gone off.''

''I wish I had five minutes with him now,'' Wally Long said. ''I have a lot of questions, there's so much I want to know -- there's a hole in my heart so heavy, it's a void you can never rebuild.''

At Robert Long's viewing, more than 400 people showed up, including Bob ''Boogie'' Pugh.

''He said he just wanted to come over and meet me and pay homage and respect to the man who saved my life,'' Wally Long said. ''He thanked me for my son -- and that touched me.''

The ''other'' miners

There was another team of nine miners working a different section of Quecreek Mine on July 24, 2002.

Seconds after Popernack, operating the continuous miner, a machine that cuts coal, breached the abandoned Saxman Mine and its 70 million gallons of water roared in Quecreek, Dennis ''Harpo'' Hall called the other miners.

''He said 'Get the … out,' and you could tell by his voice he was serious,'' said Ron Schad.

Danger is a constant for miners, but it's usually fire, smoke, falling rocks. The thing they fear the most is the ''black damp.''

''That's where there's no oxygen; you get into that and you're dead,'' said Joe Kostyk, one of the ''other'' nine. ''There's not a guy in that place that doesn't know how to get out. And you better know more than one way out.''

Hall's warning gave the other nine just enough time to make it out of the mine before it filled with water. But not before a desperate struggle to get through a low spot in the tunnel that was almost completely filled.

''I knew it was either get through or die,'' Kostyk said.

''The sound of the water is what I remember most,'' Schad added.

Four of the other nine, including Kostyk and Schad, went back into the Quecreek Mine when it reopened in November.

''There isn't a coal miner in the world who would trade places with them for any amount of money,'' Kostyk said of the Quecreek Nine. ''Being trapped for 77 hours, not knowing if you're going to live, that's tough.''

And he wouldn't want to go through what they have gone through since the rescue. ''I'm glad everyone's bothering them and not me,'' Kostyk said. ''I don't want any part of it.''

Both men said they will be working a shift in the mine today -- the anniversary of the day they almost died.

''It's our job,'' Kostyk said.

Another miracle worker

It could have been Rob Zaremski.

A sales representative for a company that sells safety equipment, Zaremski raced to the site with a victim locator kit, dropped a small microphone down to the trapped miners and spoke to them, verifying all nine were alive: ''It was like kneeling down to pray to God -- and having God talk back to you.''

He could have been the rescuer singled out for fame. Like Robert Long, he was contacted by movie people.

''I knew what they wanted; the nine miners plus one, maybe two of the rescue people for the movie,'' he said, adding nothing came of the discussions.

He has no regrets.

''I have something to look back on, something that brings a big smile to my face whenever I think about it. That's more than enough for me.''

He also has Noah.

After the 77-hour rescue was completed, Zaremski said he and his wife ''conceived right after I go home.''

Noah was born nine months and five days later.

''He wanted to name him Q,'' said Colleen Zaremski. Instead, they settled on Noah, who, like the miners, survived a flood of biblical proportions.

As for Long, who he met and said was a good guy, Zaremski has no resentment or jealousy.

''God bless Bob. He's the one who jumped out with the equipment. Who wouldn't take advantage of the opportunity he had?''

Building a memorial

On the day Bill Arnold cemented up the 240-foot hole on his farm that rescue workers used to reach down and snatch up the miners, his 3-year-old son, Morgan, started to cry … and wouldn't stop.

''What if the miners get trapped again?'' he asked his father. ''How will we get them out?''

Since the day of the rescue, the lives of Bill and Lori Arnold and their four children have revolved around the Quecreek miners and their rescue. ''It's changed our lives 1,000 percent,'' Bill Arnold said.

''I always thought I was spiritual, then this happened,'' his wife said. ''It's always on my mind, I'm driven by it.''

Apart from raising money for a memorial and visitors center, they have set up a nonprofit organization, Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation. And Bill Arnold is working on a documentary of the rescue.

''We're used to getting up early and working all day and not getting much sleep,'' Lori Arnold, referring to their farming chores. ''This just adds another day to our day.''

The Arnolds are a bit like Kevin Costner's family in ''Field of Dreams,'' full of faith and determination, ready to answer the call of an unseen higher power -- and build it.

Day after day, Lori Arnold is at the site, leading tours, talking to people, telling the story, keeping the miracle alive. There's a shop set up to sell T-shirts, posters, memorabilia. So far, she said, more than 50,000 people have visited. On a recent weekend, a steady stream of people made their way to the site to listen to her tell the story.

''They want to witness the place where the miracle happened,'' she said.

Sometimes the miners themselves show up.

''They'll give me a look to let me know if they want the other people to know who they are,'' she said. ''If not, they can go about their business in privacy.''

Morgan, now 4, is usually with his mother at the site and has gotten to know all the miners. His favorite is John ''Flathead'' Phillippi. ''Because his name is Flathead,'' he said.

One day, a man in his 20s showed up. He looked a little overwhelmed, a little shaken. Lori Arnold walked over and started talking to him. ''He said his grandfather was killed in the Saxon mine, just a little way from here,'' she said.

Meeting people like this, she said, is why the site is so important to her.

''We feel blessed,'' Bill Arnold said. ''People thank us and say 'God bless you' and we say he has by allowing us to be part of this.''

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