SOMERSET COUNTY, Pa. — Nine for nine — the miracle at Quecreek Mine captivated our area and the nation in July 2002. Nine miners were trapped 240 feet underground for 77 hours in Somerset County. All were rescued alive.
WPXI is looking back 20 years later, talking to the miners who survived the ordeal, those who fought against the clock to rescue them, and others who pledge to never forget.
Channel 11′s Melanie Gillespie sat down with Robert “Boogie” Pugh. He was the next-to-last miner to get rescued. He told her there are some days he still cannot talk about what happened at Quecreek.
Life is simpler now for Pugh. He lives on a farm in Somerset County, less than 10 miles from the site where he was rescued.
“I think about it a lot,” Pugh said. “At night, a few times I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about it. I guess you call them nightmares.”
July 24, 2002 — the day when he and his crew got trapped — never strays far from his mind, even two decades later.
“I believed in miracles, but I didn’t think I’d ever be in one,” Pugh said. “We figured we weren’t getting out. The beginning, we thought maybe, but after we beat it down and beat it back, we thought we’re not getting out of here.”
At that point, Pugh had a 32-year career in the mines. He had only been working at Quecreek Mine for about a year. He recalled that the maps weren’t quite right that day and they pushed a little too far.
“We figured another day or two we’d get out and start to go left and a put a belt in, and it didn’t happen. We went a day too long and cut through an old abandoned mine,” Pugh said.
The mine flooded. Nine members of the crew were going in one direction, and Pugh and the crew retreated to an air pocket. Pugh said oxygen levels were low — and so was morale. The nine sat in the darkness in silence.
“There wasn’t much to talk about. We sat back-to-back up against each other because our sides were so sore from laying on rock and coal lumps. We didn’t say much,” Pugh said.
The first sign of hope and communication came from a 6-inch hole drilled from above.
“We were all weak. Oxygen levels were real low and boom, it came a couple feet from us, it busted through and we’re like, wow, what’s this. Now we’ll get a phone to see if our nine buddies got out of here. We just kept thinking their bodies are going to come floating up to us,” Pugh said.
Pugh didn’t find out until his rescue that the other nine members of his crew made it out alive on that first night.
As rescue teams began pulling the miners up to rescue, one by one, Pugh was the eighth miner to surface. He said he never expected the crowds he saw.
“When you get up there and all these people and all these lights. It was like, wow, what’s going on. It felt like wow. Like the Steelers won the Super Bowl,” Pugh said.
But his respect lies with the rescue teams.
“They’re really intelligent people, those rescuers. They’re good. You know, they saved our lives,” Pugh said.
Those 77 hours underground left an undeniable bond among the nine for nine — even when it came down to who was going to be the last one rescued. It was between Pugh and Mark Popernack, known as Mo.
“I said (to Mo) you got young kids up there. My kids all graduated. I felt at least I had made it that far, you know.”
But when Popernack insisted that he go last, Pugh said: “I’m not going to argue with you. I’m getting the hell out of here. I took off and went up in that cage.”
Twenty years later, there’s even a long-lasting relationship between those Somerset County miners and then interim-Gov. Mark Schweiker. Schweiker was at the rescue site for days, personally watching each miner surface above ground.
“He liked us. He’s a down-to-earth fella, and he liked us because we were regular coal miners. He fit right in with us,” Pugh said.
The rescue was the second time in less than a year that Somerset County was put in the national spotlight. The rescue site is less than 10 miles from when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11.
President George W. Bush visited the miners after their rescue, and told them that this time, the country had something to celebrate.
Pugh said that after his rescue, his children told him he was not going back into the mines. He’s now 70 years old, retired and spends all of his time with them, his grandchildren, and his beloved goats.
Pugh said his appreciation for life begins every morning he wakes up. “I just love getting up in the morning and seeing the daylight and seeing that sunshine.”
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