Poetry

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The Quecreek Mine Disaster

by Lionel E. Deimel

  

The C Prime Seam ran out to Somerset,

And mining coal was long a practice there;

The Quecreek mine was but the latest hole

Where Pennsylvanians laid the black rock bare.

 

The team of nine was working Wednesday night—

A practiced group with decades underground;

Unwittingly, they cut into a wall,

Where water-filled, abandoned halls they found.

 

On maps, the Saxman mine was not too close—

Those maps, through guile or carelessness, had lied;

One miner ran to find the telephone;

To miners far away, “Get out!”  he cried.

 

The passage out led down, then up again,

So men and water shared a swift descent;

But water won the frenzied downward race,

And men knew what the flooded chamber meant—

 

No longer was escape a goal to seek,

For life itself became their only thought;

To higher ground they crawled back up in pain;

Against cascading flood, they bravely fought.

 

They tied themselves together with a rope,

And so would live or perish as a team;

If dying was to be their lot that day,

They’d find their rest together in that seam.

 

At last, they reached a summit in the mine,

Whose ceiling, from the waters, was unwet;

Their pangs of terror turned to thoughts of death,

Unmindful of events in Somerset.

 

The miners’ plight, of course, was known above

By townsfolk yielding not to dark despair;

They guessed where savvy miners had to go

And drilled to send compressed and heated air.

 

The rescue plan was not a simple one—

They couldn’t let the mine with water fill,

So pumps would have a crucial role to play,

And, too, a summoned West Virginia drill.

 

On Thursday morn, the six-inch bit broke through,

Below the ground two hundred forty feet,

And banging on the pipe soon made it clear:

There was a deep-mine rescue to complete!

 

On Thursday afternoon, the big rig came

To drill a shaft a rescue cage could thread;

That job would take a half a day or more

To reach the barely living or the dead.

 

The miners’ many loved ones all about

Were gathered up in Sipesville’s fire hall

To comfort one another, weep, and hope,

And steel themselves, whatever might befall.

 

The world’s attention now was on that mine—

Reporters pressed for facts that they could share;

The governor was ready to oblige

With information, confidence, and prayer.

 

The rescue hole was started Thursday night,

But trouble struck it well before the dawn—

The bit had gone one hundred feet, then broke;

Yet, through it all, the water pumps pumped on.

 

The men had heard the drilling sounds above

And dared to think salvation close at hand;

When hopeful, distant rumblings fell away,

Once more, they feared they’d made their final stand.

 

They huddled close together for their heat,

Encouraging, in turn, the faint of heart;

On scraps, they penned brief notes to leave behind,

Their feelings for their loved ones to impart.

 

Alas, the bit had stuck inside the shaft,

And hours passed by with progress at a halt;

Another drill began another hole

Until the first could finish its assault.

 

On Saturday, the drill bored ever down,

As pumping made the water level fall;

With drilling done, a phone was sent below,

Where miners shouted, “OK! One and all!”

 

So resurrections followed Sunday morn,

As, one-by-one, the men were raised above,

Released from three-days’ prison’s bonds of gloom

And saved by acts of sacrifice and love.

 

Miner at work

 

When nine miners were trapped inside a Somerset County, Pennsylvania, coal mine on July 24, 2002, state, local, and federal resources were mobilized quickly to save the miners. Over the next few days, the rescue efforts at the Black Wolf Coal Company’s Quecreek Mine became the focus of the nation’s (and even the world’s) attention. Like many people, I followed the situation closely, prayed for a favorable outcome, and rejoiced when the miners emerged from the ground in relatively good health and spirits. Only later did it become clear that the rescue, in spite of the confidence expressed by the rescue workers, was really something of a miracle.

The emergence of the miners from the rescue shaft reminded me of words from the baptismal service in the Book of Common Prayer, words I felt I understood better because of events at the Quecreek mine:

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

These words and the three-day length of the miners’ entombment were the inspiration for the poem. The last verse was, in fact,  written last. From the beginning, however, I knew where I wanted the poem to go.

The excellent reporting of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was invaluable in writing the poem, particularly the special report, “All Nine Alive!” which was later expanded into a book. Also helpful was the Stone Phillips interview with the miners on NBC-TV’s “Dateline” a few days after the rescue.

The poem was begun on 7/30/2002 and finished on 8/12/2002. (Click here to view the original version.) Over a period of eleven months, I made mostly small changes to improve continuity, avoid repetition, and keep the poem as true as possible to the facts. (I do acknowledge the omission of some key incidents, but history is not best captured in verse.) Preparing for a public reading of “Quecreek” in July 2003, I became dissatisfied with the meter of one verse, and, before I knew it, I had changed several lines and repositioned an entire verse. I thought I was done with this project, but, on 2/24/2005, I had an exchange of e-mail with geologist Ron Mullennex, who pointed out that the Quecreek Mine works the Upper Kittanning coal seam (C Seam), not the Pittsburgh Seam, as had been suggested in the poem from the beginning. Fortunately, I could replace “Pittsburgh” with “C Prime” without doing rhythmic damage to the first line. The new line is perhaps less evocative, but the cause of truth has been served.

— LED, 2/24/2005

I visited the Quecreek rescue site 8/15/2015. Pictures of the site can be seen on my blog.

— LED, 8/17/2015

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