“It was Hallelujah”: Former Pa. Gov. Mark Schweiker recalls Quecreek Mine rescue 20 years later

SOMERSET COUNTY, Pa. — “That’s as triumphant as it gets right there Mark,” remarked Channel 11′s Rick Earle while looking at a picture of former Gov. Mark Schweiker at a news conference relaying news that the nine Quecreek Mine miners had been found alive.

“Oh yea, it was just 10 minutes earlier, I was with the families and you know, under the heading of ‘you can’t ask for more,’ you know, a more delightful message than to say ‘we know where they are, they’re alive and the next couple of hours we’re going to bring them up one by one,’” Schweiker told Earle.

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Broadcasting the fate of the nine miners trapped 240 feet below the surface of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, was perhaps the defining image of Schweiker’s 16 months as governor.

“All nine are alive,” said Schweiker on that day, 20 years ago.

Two decades later, Schweiker, who became governor after Gov. Tom Ridge was tapped as homeland security secretary after 9/11, remembers it like it was yesterday, recounting specific details from those four days in July that gripped the nation.

“Imagine being underneath your kitchen table with water up to your chin,” said Schweiker, who met with Earle at the site of the rescue.

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Schweiker told Earle how he cut short his vacation and immediately headed to Somerset County to oversee the operation.

“It’s much like a quarterback you know, in a key drive with the Steelers trying to score. You know the quarterback’s got to believe and push on,” said Schweiker.

They devised a plan that had never been attempted, to drill an air shaft to the highest point in the mine where they suspected the miners would have gone, and then pump in compressed air to keep the water from rising.

“From beginning to end there were a series of conceptual first that worked,” said Schweiker.

Early Thursday they broke through the roof of the mine and minutes later heard tapping on the drill bit.

‘We didn’t want to make too much of it,” said Schweiker.

“But you knew at that point somebody was down there and somebody was alive?” asked Earle.

“Yes, we didn’t know if it was one or nine but it was, ‘push on,’” said Schweiker.

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They pumped fresh air into the mine so the men could breathe, as massive pumps set up around the mine entrances ran around the clock pumping water out of the mine.

Crews started drilling another larger hole, a 26-inch rescue shaft. But the drill bit broke.

Schweiker had to deliver the news to family members gathered at the nearby fire hall.

“At that point we just had to ask for their indulgence and quite literally they were on their knees praying when I left in a prayer circle, knowing this was likely not going to see a fifth day,” said Schweiker.

Crews eventually removed the broken drill bit, and pushed on.

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Finally, late Saturday night, three days into the ordeal, the drill finally reached the mine but there were still serious safety concerns.

“Were we ready to break through the top of the cavern? Because if there was still a lot of water left, you know, you might introduce the prospect of drowning them,” recalled Schweiker.

After consulting with the experts, Schweiker gave the go ahead. The drill broke through the ceiling. Crews shut down all of the equipment and sent down a miniature communication device and waited.

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Schweiker described the anxious moments.

“He (a crew member) was probably down there for it seemed like a good minute and then his thumb shot up. And then his thumb shot up nine times, which confirmed we had nine miners,” said Schweiker.

Schweiker returned to the fire hall, this time with good news.

“It was Hallelujah. It was, it was just, you know literally, praise the Lord!” said Schweiker.

As the first miner was pulled to safety in the yellow rescue capsule, the first time it was ever used, Schweiker was right there. He even helped rescue workers carry Randy Fogle to the medical tent.

“Someone said ‘say hi to Gov. Schweiker’ and he went ‘who?’ So and I just said, ‘Randy, happy to have you back,’” remembered Schweiker.

Schweiker remained there at the site of the rescue until all nine of the miners had been pulled to safety.

“It was as if we won the Super Bowl,” said Schweiker.

Over the years, Schweiker has developed a strong bond with the miners, speaking with them often, and at times talking about their brush with death.

“I think to the man they’ll tell you they did not think they were going to make it 10 hours, let alone 80. We all went through something unforgettable and that’s the bond that keeps us together. It was one hell of a way as far as the final chapter here at Quecreek, that we could really demonstrate to an entire country that when you work together, emphasize unity and teamwork, the premium — that payoff — is tremendous for the nine families and the American psyche,” said Schweiker, who is 69 years old now and works part time as a consultant.

Schweiker, who served two terms as lieutenant governor, served out the remaining term for Gov. Tom Ridge and then got out of politics. He said he doesn’t regret that decision because it allowed him to spend more time with his family. He went to work as the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce for six years, before joining a pharmaceutical manufacturer.