SOMERSET, Pa. — Mark Schweiker said a single principle guided efforts to free nine miners trapped deep in the Quecreek Mine 15 years ago this week.
“We never forgot that this was about reuniting nine families,” the former Pennsylvania governor said in an interview with The Tribune-Democrat.
Schweiker was on site during the rescue operation that began after Quecreek miners broke through stone into an uncharted mine shaft on the night of July 24, 2002 – releasing millions of gallons of water and trapping them in their work area – and for the moment when the last of the miners was lifted to safety early on the morning of July 28, 2002.
That same spirit will prevail when Schweiker returns to the Somerset County mine site to remember the bravery of the miners and the determination of the rescuers who drilled through more than 230 feet of rock to pull nine men to safety.
Schweiker will speak at the Quecreek site on Thursday. A Community Celebration Day will be held Saturday.
“We’re like family,” Schweiker said of his connection with the Somerset region and the miners.
“I think, even 15 years later – aside from the spectacular events that we witnessed there – it’s about gratitude and the kinds of emotions you experience at a reunion,” he said.
“There will be a lot of hugs, the emotional aspect. You’re happy to see the kids and grandkids – even as you realize that all of this could have been pre-empted had we not been successful that night.”
‘We were not going to yield’
The Quecreek Mine rescue was characterized by stretches of hope followed by periods of frustration and even despair.
The state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration coordinated the rescue effort, which involved drilling a hole 30 inches in diameter from the surface down to the trapped miners.
Simultaneously, compressed air was piped into the mine area while pumps were used to remove some of the water that surrounded the miners.
Drilling began about 6 p.m. on July 25 – the day after the miners were trapped. About 2:30 the following morning, the drill bit broke – forcing rescuers to start another shaft nearby.
The governor and the rescue team had agreed to a “families-first policy” during the operation, he said. That meant any news would go to the miners’ family members and then to the press.
The workers’ wives, parents and children were gathered at the nearby Sipesville fire station.
“We made a pledge to the families that – whether there was new information or no updates – we would send somebody down there every hour,” Schweiker said. “I took it upon myself to go down there and tell the families that we had to stop the drilling in that first shaft.
“That was probably the low point for the families.”
Eventually drilling resumed on the first shaft, even as work continued on the second shaft.
The progress was slow, and emotions ran high as the process stretched through a third day – Friday – and into the weekend.
“About 50 or 60 hours into this, there could have been a feeling of despair – given what miners and their families had been through over the years and had come to expect from such situations,” Schweiker said, “that not all were going to come up, and that they should get themselves ready for that.
“But we were not going to yield to that.”
David La Torre was the governor’s press secretary, and accompanied Schweiker on his first visit with the families.
“He handled that room perfectly,” La Torre recalled. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it. He walked into the middle of the room, stopped and looked every person in the eye. Then he let them know he was on site to do whatever he could do.
“He made no promises, other than that he would get them the information they wanted, and that the Commonwealth would do whatever it could to save their loved ones.”
Saved three times
By late Saturday night, July 27, drillers at the second shaft knew they were getting close to breaking through into the chamber where the nine miners were waiting.
That moment came at about 10:15 p.m., and by 11 p.m. people on the surface had connected with the miners with a phone lowered down the shaft.
Schweiker confirmed at 11:30 p.m. that all nine were alive.
From 1 a.m. to 2:35 a.m., the miners were lifted one by one to the surface and taken to area hospitals for treatment.
“You could make a case that losing the drill bit for a while was a godsend,” Schweiker said.
“The water level in the mine was still pretty high on Saturday. Had we not been slowed and had to start the second shaft … it allowed the pumps to suck out more and more water as the hours went on and on.”
The former governor believes the local miners were saved three different times during the 77-hour ordeal:
. When an air pipe was extended down into the mine early Thursday morning and compressed air pumped into the area where the workers were trapped.
The warm air served two purposes: provide oxygen to help the miners breathe, and warm the chamber to help them avoid hypothermia.
Additionally, the heated air served to slow the rising of the water level in the mine.
“That was a theory, but it had never been tried before,” Schweiker said. “But it worked.”
. When pumps were used to remove some of the water from the mine.
“We got every pump in there that we could – large and small,” Schweiker said.
He recalled that one large pump was brought up from Philadelphia with a police escort along the Schuylkill Expressway.
“That meant the water levels could not overwhelm them,” he said. “The water was up to their mouths at one point.”
. When the miners were finally lifted to the surface – one after the other – in a metal capsule.
‘The heart of a man’
During and after the Quecreek rescue, Schweiker was widely praised for his leadership throughout the crisis.
He called his approach “executive presence.”
That included coordinating the movement of information among emergency crews and with the families and media – who were sequestered in a nearby shopping area.
Schweiker said his mission also included bringing together the experience available from the Black Wolf Mining Co., which owned the site, local surveyors and engineers, the DEP and federal officials – even Lockheed Martin, which helped pinpoint the drilling spots with satellite images.
“Asking the tough questions in those situations is the governor’s job,” Schweiker said. “It might not be spelled out in the Constitution, but it’s what you have to do.”
La Torre remembers Schweiker as “courageous” – and said the governor was upbeat even as his press secretary was planning in his mind for “a worst-case scenario.”
“He was destined to be the face of this situation, which could have turned out to be a failed rescue, for the rest of his life,” La Torre said. “But he still took that gamble and put it on himself. He was more concerned with helping the people than with his own reputation.”
La Torre added: “The federal government is used to calling the shots at an operation such as at Quecreek. Much to their frustration, Mark Schweiker was not going to allow that to happen. They were in his state, and he was going to call the shots.”
La Torre recalled Schweiker breaking down emotionally less than a year earlier when confronted with the tragedy at Shanksville, and then celebrating with the same community when the miners were raised from Quecreek Mine.
“Quecreek was truly a moment the country needed, and it came through the heart of a man who had experienced both scenarios,” La Torre said.
“It was right after 9/11. The country needed a win. When those miners were saved at Quecreek, it crystalized what all of America was feeling.”
‘Never gave up’
The former lieutenant governor, Schweiker had ascended to the the state’s top office the previous October, when Gov. Tom Ridge was appointed the first U.S. director of homeland security following 9/11.
A governor’s election was under way in the summer of 2002, but Schweiker was not running to keep the office. The Republican candidate was instead Attorney General Mike Fisher, who eventually lost the election to Democrat Ed Rendell.
Schweiker never attempted to parlay his visibility at Quecreek into another political office.
State Rep. Tom Yewcic, D-Jackson Township, said at the time: “He’s at the mine scene for his personal motivation of wanting to be involved.
“He’s doing the best he can for those families.”
Chuck Ardo of the Rendell For Governor campaign added: “This is not political, and I don’t think he has anything politically to gain from it. He’s showing great leadership and compassion, and that’s what leaders do. He’s stepped up to the plate during a difficult situation. You have to give him credit for being there day and night. This transcends politics.”
Fifteen years removed from the Quecreek event, Schweiker is senior vice president and corporate development officer with RenMatix, a King of Prussia company developing plant-based fuels and other products, and a senior adviser to the law firm Stradley Ronon in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
But he said his thoughts are often on the rescue operations that played out at Quecreek in 2002, and on the nine men who persevered underground – believing that they would get to see their families again.
“I was struck by the grit and stick-to-itiveness of the miners down below,” Schweiker said.
“I tell people, could you imagine being huddled under your kitchen table, roped together, thinking that you might soon be meeting your maker, as the water level rises? Then to have the presence of mind to write letters to your loved ones and let them know how you feel?
“That takes a special level of intestinal fortitude. This was a very thoughtful group of men who never gave up.”
Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, http://www.tribune-democrat.com