[8 April 2003]
“It’s too damned dark for you to see,
So I did not protest,
My soul shook free, you can’t have me
But you may keep the rest.”
—Arlo Guthrie, Underground
What’s it feel like to stare death in the face? Moreover, what’s it like to sit to sit in a dank corner and wait for it? Nine Pennsylvania miners trapped 24 stories beneath the Earth in the rural town of Somerset know all to well the answer to that question.
In July of last year, on a routine expedition underground to remove coal from the Quecreek mine, experienced miners Randy Fogle, Dennis “Harpo” Hall, Blaine Mayhugh, Ronald “Hound Dog” Hileman, John “Flathead” Phillippi, Mark “Moe” Popernack, John Unger, Tom “Tucker” Foy, and Robert “Boogie” Pugh found themselves in the most frightening of situations. When drilling into one of the mine walls, they hit upon an abandoned mine filled with thousands of gallons of water, which soon began filling the hole they were working in trapping them in a small enclave.
After numerous attempts at escape schemes, the men soon resigned themselves to the fact that they would, in time, be swallowed by the massive amounts of water steadily working to fill the mine. For the most part, they were unaware of the rescue attempts happening above them, when the entire community of Somerset, not to mention mining communities, government officials and rescue and first-aid services in surrounding districts, banded together to bring the men to safety. It was, therefore, for the miners lost in the blackness of Quecreek, time to examine their lives, make peace with their Gods, and wait for impending death.
In Our Story: 77 Hours Underground (as titled in Australia, the book was released in November in the United States as Our Story: 77 Hours that Tested our Friendship and our Faith), author and New York Times writer Jeff Goodell, paints a picture of nine men in dire straits, who, throughout their horrific ordeal, manage to retain control and assist each other to make their apparent final hours bearable.
Goodell also tell the numerous stories of the wives, girlfriends, children and co-workers waiting patiently (and sometimes, impatiently) for word on their loved ones and friends. Goodell splits Our Story into very distinct parts, only placing in his own narrative to move the story along, relying instead on snippets of interviews with the miners to actually tell it. This technique works well, as we are given all the technical details of the miners’ ordeal—the rescue, the familial grief—while hearing exactly what it was like for the men in their own words.
It is these moments, when we’re able to read what the miners have to say, complete with distinct accents, profanity and sorrow that the book really hits its mark. For example, when recounting an attempt to build a wall out of bricks to hold the water back, Moe had this to say: “I had to take a break. That lack of oxygen, buddy, it really breaks you down. I mean, everybody was kicked in the ass.”
And then there’s the pain, the uncertainty involved in certain death, revealed by the men with excruciating honesty:
Flathead: I wished we’d just run out of air and pass out because I didn’t know how I would [let myself drown]. Are you going to put your head tight to the roof and try to keep as much air in your lungs as you can? Or are you just going to go under?”
And this, from Blaine, the youngest member of the team who was trapped alongside his father-in-law, Tucker:
“The one thing I asked God—I wanted to get a glimpse of my family before I was gone. I hoped it would be like the movies, you know, when your soul rises up through the air and you can see what’s down below. I just wanted one quick look, I just wanted to know that my family was okay.”
Blaine’s wife (and Tucker’s daughter), Leslie Mayhugh was just as distraught. Her fears and memories are also documented in the book, along with those of Blaine Mayhugh Sr., Melissa “Missy” Phillippi, Kathy Hileman, Annette Fogle, Sue Unger, Sandy Popernack and others, when Goodell takes occasional breaks from the despondency underground, by crossing to the firehouse in nearby Sipesville where the families of the miners have congregated.
Leslie’s story is, in itself, devastating as she attempts to cope with the possibility of losing the two most important men in her life:
“Late Saturday afternoon, I talked to my preacher about services for Blaine and my father. I said, “I’m telling you now, while I’m in my right state of mind, do both of them together, a double funeral. If they die together, they’re going to be buried together.”
Shifting from the miners underground to their frustrated families at the firehouse is an expert way for Goodell to build the tension throughout a story where the ending is already well known. As we read about Leslie preparing the funerals of her husband and father, while listening to Blaine accept his fate that he’ll never be able to teach his son to hunt, there are real moments of pulsing anxiety, screaming at Leslie (and everybody else) to hold on just a little longer.
Goodell’s masterful technique in telling the story reveals an extraordinary and untapped subculture of modern day coal miners and their families. The togetherness and desire to succeed and help each other succeed, even in the face of danger, is truly intoxicating. From Moe’s astonishing rescue underground, to Blaine’s wonderment at the existence of heaven and Randy’s ever-failing heart, the million-and-one stories from beneath the Earth during their ordeal are nothing compared to the many, many more happening consistently throughout their careers.
The miners’ open and honest recollections this time, however, reveal them to be not only workmates and reliable family men, but brothers as well. It does the same for those giving all to free the men from their black, dusty graves. Our Story is tale of endurance, adventure, devastation and eventual blinding relief, and is a true legend of modern time.