Quecreek Mine Rescue Memorial
Feel trapped in a dead-end, wage slave job? Then spend your next meager vacation touring mine disaster memorials. When you return to work you won't feel any less trapped -- but at least you'll have air.
Grim statues and roadside markers in America's mineral and coal regions acknowledge scores of miners killed by cave-ins, toxic gas, flooding, explosions, fires. Whether victims of inadequate safeguards or the unpredictable crankiness of underground employment, mine fatalities have been commonplace for centuries.
That's one reason why the Quecreek Mine Rescue Memorial is so uplifting. Everyone lived.
It happened in Somerset, Pennsylvania, ten months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks -- and only a few miles down the road from where 9/11's Flight 93 came down.
On the evening of July 24, 2002, eighteen Black Wolf Coal Company miners were in Quecreek Mine No. 1, working with what turned out to be an inaccurate mine map. They accidentally broke through into the abandoned, flooded Harrison No. 2 Mine, quickly filling the No. 1 Mine with water and trapping nine miners in an inaccessible section of tunnel.
A rescue effort began immediately. The men were doomed unless the rescuers could determine where exactly the miners were. Above ground, a satellite tracking device was used to pinpoint the miners' location. Like cave explorer Floyd Collins and the birth of radio news reporting, the Quecreek Mine Rescue may some day be recalled as an important GPS milestone ("This Day in GPS History....").
A narrow hole was drilled 240 feet down to the miners. Air was forced in to pressurize the chamber and help hold back the water. Pumps were deployed at the mine entrance, sucking out some 15,000 gallons per minute.
A larger hole was drilled, finally reaching a chamber near the miners. They were lifted to the surface, one at a time, in a compact "rescue capsule" on a cable. On Sunday, July 28, all of the miners were retrieved, alive and with only minor injuries, after over 77 hours.
Today, the Quecreek Mine Rescue Memorial is at the site of the rescue shaft, on Dormel Farms, a 200+ year old dairy farm operated by Bill and Lori Arnold. The Arnolds have embraced the "Miracle at Dormel Farms" and formed the nonprofit Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation to operate a memorial museum -- makeshift for the moment -- in a large, utilitarian farm building near the site. Part of the "miracle" is that the spot where the miners were hauled up to safety is just off of Hwy 985 -- an amazingly convenient spot for tourists, given that the actual mine entrance is back in the hills, over 1.5 miles away.
The memorial features a bronze, 7-ft. tall statue of a miner, seated and reading a book. "They who work the mines and they who read great books are but one," says a poem posted in the museum, which seems likely to be added to the statue in the future. Or, maybe the miner is just calmly waiting to be rescued.
Next to the statue, a small slope angles down to a metal cylinder covered with a grate, the spot where the rescue tunnel was drilled. Other artifacts are arrayed around the field with explanatory signs, although Lori Arnold notes with some blushing that the sign-painters painted the wrong year. She and a friend were guiding a busload of straw-hatted farmers when we arrived.
Lori told us about how the family juggles running the farm and catering to visitors with tours, presentations, and answering questions. "I'm up at 4:15 every day -- but what are you gonna do? Turn people away? It was a miracle!"
The Education Center/Museum is a work-in-progress -- photos mounted on boards, a scattering of artifacts, some local artwork depicting the rescue. The big coup for the Arnolds was snagging the Rescue Capsule-- the equivalent of exhibiting the the Command Module from Apollo 13 (they all lived, too). The tall yellow cylinder starkly stands on end on the concrete floor, like a piece of a theme park's decommissioned thrill ride.
The Education center/museum tells the tale of the rescue, but nearly as interesting is the aftermath -- lives forever changed, lives enriched or ruined by fame. The Arnolds (or other participants in the rescue, who seem to be frequent visitors) will fill you in. Lori, for example, told us that "Disney was here talking to the guys while they were still in the hospital!"
The long-term plan of the Arnolds is to create something called The Monument to Life, a memorial with 31 bronze figures recreating the moment when living miners started to emerge from the rescue tunnel. It will celebrate not only this disaster, but the efforts of rescue workers from every disaster.
The Arnolds also have an ambitious plan to move the volunteer fire hall -- where miners' families stayed -- two miles down the road to the Rescue Memorial site. The building would be used as a permanent museum to exhibit artifacts, photos, and information about the rescue. Lori said that plans were on hold because they have to remove the fire hall's roof before they can move the building. Fund-raising and donation-seeking are under way.
There are plenty of souvenirs, mementos, books and t-shirts for sale at the Education Center, which help to defray the operating expenses. This is helpful, for while everyone appreciates a miracle, there are often devils lurking in the details. "Our property taxes have gone ten times higher," Lori told us. The Memorial site and museum have changed the property's designation to a commercial zone.