Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
The site of the Quecreek Mine rescue in Lincoln Township, Somerset County, is today a memorial park. GO Laurel Highlands

The site of the Quecreek Mine rescue in Lincoln Township, Somerset County, is today a memorial park.
GO Laurel Highlands

The site of a massive multigovernment rescue effort to save nine miners trapped hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface is today a placid meadow with a memorial park and a museum dedicated to telling the story of four desperate days in July 2002.

“It’s been a life-changing 20 years,” says Bill Arnold, executive director of the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation, located at the rescue site, part of his 284-acre farm in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. “On average, we get 10,000 to 12,000 visitors a year.”

One late afternoon last fall, Arnold finishes accommodating another tourbus load of visitors before speaking with me. He recalls that late night of July 24, when he saw a couple of lights flashing in his fields. He investigated and found a mining engineer neighbor trying to determine where to drill a rescue tunnel. “There’s been an accident in the mine,” the man told him. Arnold did not need any persuading that the matter was grave. “I could see the intensity in his face.”

The landowner was surprised to learn that Quecreek Mine ran underneath his property: “I had no idea.” But at that moment, like many members in this rural community, Arnold offered to help. With his backhoe, he turned the first earth to ensure crews did not hit a nearby gas line in a rescue effort that would prove for the miners and their families harrowing and hopeful, frustrating and doubtful, but ultimately successful.

To many involved in the rescue, especially the miners themselves, the seemingly against-the-odds rescue was a “miracle” in the mine.

“It was a miracle, and I never believed in miracles before,” Robert Pugh, the next-to-last miner brought to the surface, tells me in a recent interview. “We should have been dead 20 years ago.”


The Accident

The nine miners and their ages at the time, in order of rescue, were Randy Fogle, 43; Harry B. Mayhugh, 31; Tom Foy, 51; John Unger, 52; John Phillippi, 36; Ronald Hileman, 49; Dennis Hall, 49; Robert Pugh, 50; and Mark Popernack, 41.

The accident occurred when Popernack, operating a drilling machine, cut into the rocky wall of a flooded abandoned mine, which was not on the map they used. Water started to flood the tunnel where the nine were working. Popernack was able to warn nine other miners who escaped the rising water. He and his team were trapped 240 feet below ground. This was around 9 p.m. on July 24.

Millions of gallons of cold water rushed into the mine. As Popernack recalls, “It was like a raging river,” which moved too fast for him. Hard as he tried, he could not get across into the next chamber where the other eight men were trying to slow the flooding and pull him across. They finally used a drilling machine that Popernack climbed onto, making it possible for him to join them. Together, they moved toward higher and dry ground, the water ever rising as they did. For the next few hours, they worried about drowning and then suffocating from lack of oxygen.

Pugh recalls thinking he would prefer suffocating to drowning. “I still have some nightmares about that,” he says. “It’s always nice to wake up and know it’s a dream.”

Trapped in a tunnel about 48 inches high and 4 to 5 feet wide, the miners wanted to believe the outside world would not assume the worst, but there was doubt. Popernack speculates, “If I would have been on the outside, not being trapped, and seeing what was going on, I would have thought no one was alive.”

Around 3 a.m. on July 25, six hours after the accident, rescuers drilled a 6-inch-wide shaft into the chamber, hoping to make contact with the miners. They kept the drill’s air compressor running continuously in an attempt to warm the miners and stem the flooding. At 3:30 a.m. and again at 11:30 a.m. rescue workers heard tapping.


Workers drill to create rescue tunnels to reach the survivors. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Workers drill to create rescue tunnels to reach the survivors.
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Meanwhile on the surface, reports of the trapped miners and the rescue operation underway had been going out to the public since before dawn. The news captivated a nation still grappling with the devastating terrorist attacks — of which Somerset County was also a part — less than a year earlier on September 11, 2001.

“Less than 11 months earlier [was] 9/11 and close to 3,000 people died in one day,” Mark Schweiker, Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, recalls to me. “This contrasts to a hot summer night and all lived.”

One of the hijacked aircraft that day, United Airlines Flight 93, slammed into a field near Shanksville, about 15 miles south of Quecreek. It is believed the passengers revolted and managed to stop the terrorists from reaching their destination, as they unfortunately had in New York and Washington, D.C. All 44 passengers were killed.

Schweiker considers what the emotional backdrop for the nation was at the time — the United States at war in Afghanistan, in response to the attacks, and preparing for war in Iraq.

“I think it was uplifting for many, many observers,” he says. “We got communications from South Africa, South America — just about everywhere on this planet. They felt lifted up. Jubilant. And were inclined to express their joy and delight in how it went because most often the news accounts end with fatalities and in this case all nine miners came out alive.”

At 2:30 p.m. on July 25, three hours after rescuers last heard tapping on the drill in the 6-inch shaft, a larger drill to bore a rescue tunnel had arrived from West Virginia to the site on Arnold’s farm. Drilling rigs, trailers, trucks, flood lights and other equipment now occupied the fields. Less than four hours later, the large drill began tunneling toward the miners.

A growing concern of the rescue crews, however, was whether they could reach the miners in time to save them, and they had good reason: Mine-accident responses were, historically, recovery, not rescue, operations. In December 1907, about an hour west of Quecreek in Westmoreland County, there was an explosion in Darr Mine, where 240 coal miners were working. Only one man survived. He happened to be outside the mine when the blast occurred. It was the worst coal mining accident in Pennsylvania history. That same month several more high-casualty accidents occurred — another one in Pennsylvania in Fayette County, and others in West Virginia, Alabama and New Mexico — that prompted government regulations.

“It was really a tough, tough month,” John Urosek, a mine consultant retired from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in 2018 to the Associated Press. “And that’s really when the government got involved.”


The Rescue Effort

Led by Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Mine Safety in the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the rescue effort involved local and federal officials and the private companies that provided the drilling equipment and water pumps. “It was really all hands on deck,” recalls David Hess, who was DEP secretary at the time. “That team effort made it happen.”

Schweiker had become governor only 10 months earlier, after Tom Ridge resigned to head the U.S. Office (later Department) of Homeland Security; however, the new governor brought plenty of emergency management experience to the job. As lieutenant governor under Ridge, he led the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and as a Bucks County commissioner, he managed his share of emergency incidents.

After getting briefed early on the morning of the 25th, and before he cut short his family vacation at the beach to arrive at the site that evening, Schweiker spoke to his staff: “I made it clear aside from the broad question of ‘are we doing everything we can,’ that ‘I do not want to hear about any red tape being a point of difficulty. Our job is to eliminate red tape, our job is to be active and to deploy on many levels.’”

That included technical support. When rescue crews needed a big air compressor truck from West Virginia to pump air down the 6-inch pipe, Schweiker asked the governor of West Virginia to assign state police–marked units to ensure the truck got to the state line speedily, where Pennsylvania state troopers then escorted the truck to the site.

“No red tape. I don’t want to hear that that big rig is doing 30 miles on the interstate. We want to hear about it doing, safely, 80 miles an hour,” he recalls.


Gov. Mark Schweiker at a press conference during the Quecreek crisis. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Gov. Mark Schweiker at a press conference during the Quecreek crisis.
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Schweiker called the White House and other state governors for equipment and expertise. At one point, he ordered the Schuylkill Expressway closed to ensure a clear route for vital pumping equipment coming in from New Jersey. He even contacted Lockheed Martin, which used a satellite to confirm that the rescue crews found the accurate location of the miners when they were ready to drill.

Although an outdated map led to the accident, it was a current procedure that required miners to update their maps daily that would show where in the mines they worked that day. As Hess explained, the nine miners who escaped on Popernack’s warning were able to show rescue crews where the nine trapped miners had been at the time of the accident. This allowed them, with almost pinpoint accuracy, to determine where to drill.

“They had up-to-date information about where the coal vein was and where the miners would likely be,” Hess says. “That one procedure of keeping maps up to date every day is what helped save them.”

Hess says pushing air through the 6-inch hole also created “a pressurized air bubble” that kept the flood waters from rising and reaching that end of the mine where the nine were huddled.

Why did the mining company not know the map was outdated? Hess says before the state instituted a central depository of up-to-date mine maps, mining employees kept them at their office or home, where they were sometimes forgotten. The map in question showed that the flooded mine was much further away than it actually was. Immediately after the accident, the state and coal industry made calls for any available maps that anyone possessed, from retired inspectors, superintendents and consultants to colleges and universities.

“We got a lot of response and started to digitize map information,” Hess says. “Even now, periodically, the department puts out a call for maps.”


The Families

“There were four key locations involved in the Quecreek mine rescue,” Hess wrote in a journal he published online about his experience. “Three were along the Somerset Pike (Routes 601/985) just outside Somerset — the Giant-Eagle media center, the mine rescue site, and the Sipesville Fire Hall, just off the Somerset Pike. The portal, the entrance to the mine, was located about one and a half miles to the south of these three locations.”

After the accident occurred, the families and children of the nine miners were brought to Sipesville Fire Hall, about 5 miles from the rescue site. Schweiker appeared on the evening of the 25th to talk to them. They were seated around small tables in the hot, stuffy, unair-conditioned hall. “The families were in great distress,” he recalls.

The governor deployed state police to ensure neither the public nor the press could approach the families during the rescue operation. He also decided that the families would be the first to get any information regarding the rescue. Hess recalls that this did not sit well with the media, which eventually numbered about 100 local, national and international reporters. The reporters were kept away from the rescue site, housed instead at an impromptu media center, an empty Giant Eagle supermarket. Press conferences were held in the produce aisle. In the store’s parking lot, some 25 satellite trucks hummed day and night with broadcast updates to the world. For the governor’s and DEP’s communications staff, trying to keep the media informed and corralled was daunting at times. News personality Geraldo Rivera managed to get on the site and was escorted off.

“The media kept getting updates from us through the entire rescue,” Hess says. “That in itself was a major operation.”


Rescue work continued through the night. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Rescue work continued through the night.
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Around 2 a.m. on Friday, July 26, the drill bit boring the 24-inch-wide rescue tunnel hit rock and broke about 100 feet below the surface. Nine hours later, with new equipment, digging began on another shaft, about 75 feet from the first.

“Fifty hours in, the anxiety level was really high,” Schweiker recalls. “There was a growing feeling that perhaps we might not be successful or we might not find all nine and bring up alive all nine.”

Schweiker kept returning to the fire hall intermittently to help support the families. “It was our sense that some were losing hope. My sense of responsibility was not just to assure them that we were doing everything that we could in an operational sense to complete the rescue, but [to tell] them: ‘Look, we’re not looking to rescue one, two, six or eight. It’s going to be all nine. We’re looking for all nine. It’s going to be nine for nine.”

Reflecting back on the slogan “9 for 9,” Schweiker says, “It wasn’t meant to be a slogan. That wasn’t the environment for sloganeering. That was a place where sober talk was welcomed; bullshit talk was not welcome. It was about respecting [the families] and giving them straight talk.”

Yet that slogan, now trademarked by the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation, captured the public’s attention, like the rescue operation itself. David La Torre, Schweiker’s press secretary, believes people wanted a decisive win after the horrors of 9/11.

“America had been traumatized and we really needed a win, and I think people took to that,” La Torre says. “That was the first time since 9/11 to see a crisis happening in real time.”


Randy Fogel, the first miner brought up from the mine, ascends in the yellow caged capsule. Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20

Randy Fogel, the first miner brought up from the mine, ascends in the yellow caged capsule.
Pennsylvania State Archives, RG-20


By 8 p.m. on the 26th, drilling resumed on the first rescue tunnel after the broken bit was removed. Nineteen hours later, at 3 p.m., Saturday, July 27, the tunnel reached 224 feet in depth, less than 20 feet from where the rescue crews believed the miners were located. At 10:20 p.m. the drill broke through to the mine chamber, 240 feet below. At 10:50 they lowered a telephone and green light into the 6-inch shaft. Ten minutes later they heard the miners.

At 11:35 p.m. Schweiker confirmed that all nine miners were alive. At 12:57 a.m., on Sunday, July 28, the first of the group, Randy Fogle, who was experiencing health issues, emerged from a 22-inch-wide, yellow caged capsule on the surface. For the next 107 minutes, the world watched as the other miners emerged, after three days and seven hours wondering whether they would make it out alive, one by one. Until the men were finally lifted to the surface, they prayed. “It was nonstop praying,” Popernack says. “The power of prayer is what pulled us out of there.”

When the moment came for Robert Pugh to climb into the cage for the ascent, he turned to Mark “Mo” Popernack, the last in line. “I told Mo, ‘You go ahead, you got children. I’m ok.’” Popernack refused and insisted Pugh go ahead. Pugh recalls, “I told him, ‘I’m not going to argue with you’ and I jumped into that cage.”

When asked about his best memory of the experience, Popernack says, “It’s all the wonderful people we met and what they did for us. It was life-changing.”



On September 21, 2002, less than two months after the dramatic rescue of the nine miners, this headline appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Cue Quecreek: Somerset sees action again as filming of miner movie begins.”

Larry Sanitsky, executive producer of the ABC television movie, told the newspaper, when asked why viewers would want to watch something they already watched, “It’s not the rescue story, which is a great story, but we only have two hours, so we’re limiting it to the point of view of the miners and their families.” The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story aired two months later, on November 24, and Walt Disney Television, ABC’s parent, reportedly paid each miner $150,000 for television and book rights.

In July 2006 a Pennsylvania Historical Marker for “Quecreek Mine Accident and Rescue” was installed and dedicated near the site of the accident on Haupt Road, off the Somerset Pike.

About three years later, the miners agreed to an undisclosed amount in a lawsuit against Quecreek Mine, PBS Coals (the company that ran it), and Musser Engineering (the firm that certified the maps the miners used). Under the settlement’s terms, the monetary award remains confidential, and the companies do not admit negligence. In 2008, however, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission cited the accident’s cause was the undated and uncertified maps provided by the company and the firm and fined them $55,000 each. In 2011 an administrative judge upheld the penalty imposed on PBS Coals, citing “gross negligence.”

Following the state and federal investigations, Hess cites two important lessons learned: keeping maps updated as well as archived and readily accessible; and keeping the families of miners informed during an accident. “They’ve got to hear the information first before it goes to the press,” Hess says.


A 7-foot-tall bronze statue of a coal miner at the entrance to the rescue site memorial park. GO Laurel Highlands

A 7-foot-tall bronze statue of a coal miner at the entrance to the rescue site memorial park.
GO Laurel Highlands

In 2007 Pennsylvania adopted the Mine Families First Act, which established a seven-member board, the Mine Families First Response and Communications Advisory Council. This group developed and maintains the state’s mine families first response and communications plan.

Before state and federal governments began to regulate mine safety following the December 1907 disasters, about 700 to 800 miners died each year in the early 1900s. At the time, it was seen as the cost of doing business, Hess says. Since those days, mine safety has changed dramatically. Hess says the response at Quecreek is a testament to a century of safety regulations. “The key to mine safety is prevention and to have people trained to know what to do in the case of an accident and to have the equipment to respond to the accident,” he says.

Of the nine miners, only Randy Fogle continues to work in mining, now as a superintendent, going underground a couple of times a week, says Arnold, who is preparing the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation for a 20th anniversary event this year. Popernack still works for the company, but on the surface, selling coal, gravel and construction aggregate. The others have found work elsewhere or, like Robert Pugh, retired.

The mine itself was finally closed in 2018, but the experience left an indelible memory on the miners, the rescue crews and the community. During those four days, neighbors provided what they could, from food to fetching supplies. Arnold recalls how the wife of his dairy farm neighbor went out of her way to help feed the families. “In one day, she made 14 meatloaves,” he says. “Everyone in the community did what was necessary.”


Further Reading

All Nine Alive: The Dramatic Mine Rescue That Inspired and Cheered a Nation. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2002. / Arnold, Bill. Miracle at Quecreek Mine. New Albany, IN: Encourage Publishing, 2017. / Arnold, Bill, and Lori Arnold. Miracle at Dormel Farms: The Story of the Quecreek Mine Rescue. Somerset, PA: Dormel Enterprises, 2007. / Hess, David. “Rock–Water–Air: A Personal Account of the 2002 Quecreek Mine Rescue.” PA Environmental Digest Blog, July 18, 2017. / Morton, Andrew. Nine For Nine: The Pennsylvania Mine Rescue Miracle. London: Michael O’Mara, 2002. / Quecreek Miners, as told to Jeff Goodell. Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith. New York: Hyperion, 2002.


Peter Durantine, a writer and journalist for nearly 30 years, lives in Hummelstown, Dauphin County. His previous feature for Pennsylvania Heritage was “The Man for the Moment: Tom Ridge and the 9/11 Inflection Point,” which was published in the Summer 2021 edition.”