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Miner says trapped men 'like family to me'

By Jeff Goodell
Special to

SOMERSET, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- As the work of the rescue operation intensifies to a furious pace, Doug Custer stands just above the drilling site, trying not to cry.

The area is cordoned off by military personnel, and the Navy is readying a special remote-control camera to send down into the mine before the rescuers go in. Medevac helicopters have arrived.

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Less than 72 hours ago, Custer, 45, was down in that mine himself, working just a few hundred yards from the men who are now trapped in the ground below.

Now he's waiting, here in the fresh air, for word of their fate.

His eyes are red from sleeplessness and wet from emotion; his beard unshaven. He wears a blue-striped polo shirt with his name written over his heart on a piece of silver duct tape.

He squints, as if the very sunlight were offensive to him.

Last Wednesday, he recalls, started like any other day. Near the end of his shift, at about 9 p.m., he was hard at work with a team of seven men at the bottom of the Quecreek Mine, bolting plates up to support the roof of the mine.

"All of a sudden, a call came in on the walkie-talkie. They said, 'We hit water -- get out.' In a mine, we joke around a lot, but we know a call like this is serious, so we dropped our tools, shut off the machinery, and got out of there as fast as we could."

'Where are the other guys?'

The ceiling was too low to really run, so they had to walk quickly, bent over double. The only lillumination came from the lamps on their mining helmets.

As they crossed into one of the main tunnels, the water started to catch up with them -- "Pretty soon it was a serious current running hard against our legs," Custer recalls.

They detoured into another tunnel, and rode a lift to a higher portion of the mine, finally reaching the main tunnel, which was dry and clear.

"All this time, we had heard nothing from the other team," Custer says. "We assumed they were getting out, too."

Custer and his team jumped onto a golf cart -- all eight of them -- and rode it up to the mouth of the mine and into the open air.

"My first thought was, 'Where are the other guys? Did they get out?'"

They waited for word on the radio; there was only silence. Soon emergency personnel started to arrive.

"That's when we started to worry," Custer says.

And he's been worrying pretty much ever since. In his 29 years as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, he's known three men who were killed on the job. A year ago, a 27-year-old man was crushed when the roof of the mine fell on him. Custer was working just a few hundred yards away at the time.

But this time, it's different. "Some of those guys down there are like family to me," Custer says, and talks about the quiet, strong, deep bond that is forged between coal miners as they labor in the darkness for about $15 an hour.

He thinks about their kids, wives, and most of all, what it has been like for these nine men trapped down there in the wet and the cold for all these hours.

"I've been working with Mark Popernack and Randy Fogle for almost 20 years," he says. "They are the strongest, toughest guys I know."

It's rare to hear a coal miner cry, but at the mention of these men's names, Custer's eyes well up, and he looks away, toward the churning drill in the pit below.

Jeff Goodell is the author of "Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family." He is working on a book about coal and energy in the United States.




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