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On The Scene

Goodell: Despair turns to joy for rescuers

Jeff Goodell
Special to

SOMERSET, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- I arrived in Somerset, Pennsylvania, at about 1 a.m. on Thursday, July 25, a little more than 24 hours after the Quecreek mine had flooded, and drove directly to the media command post that had been set up in an empty Giant Eagle supermarket.

There, a sea of TV trucks waited in the parking lot, with their satellite dishes pointed toward the stars.

At that hour, it was fairly quiet, except for two guys from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection who had been assigned to answer phones and questions at what had once been the photo counter inside the supermarket. Both these men worked with the DEP's bureau of abandoned mines, and had a lot of experience with mine disasters.

After talking with them for an hour or so, it was clear that they, like myself and many of the other journalists covering the story, had very little hope for these miners. They mentioned the bad air underground, the cold, the darkness, the difficulty of the rescue operation they were attempting, the problems they were having pumping the water out of the mine.

As they munched on a big bag of potato chips and looked around the eerily vacant grocery store, I could see that, for both of them, it took tremendous effort not to talk about the movie clip that seemed to be playing in their heads: the water rising, the men struggling to hold their noses and mouths above the water, then slowly going under.

When I visited the rescue site the next day, I found a similar mood among many workers. Everyone talked about hope, but inside, many feared the worst. And with emotions running so high, it's no surprise that there was conflict on the site, including a heated debate in the early hours between state and federal officials over who was really in charge of the rescue operation.

Several family members were angry and hurt that they were not allowed unrestricted access to the rescue site; they were also suspicious that the officials running the rescue operation, including Gov. Mark Schweiker, were not telling them the whole truth about what was going on (a charge that some family members later admitted was unjustified).

By Saturday morning, after almost 72 hours of exhausting, non-stop rescue operations, conflict abated and exhaustion set in. A thunderstorm rumbled through, causing everyone to seek shelter in the old barns on the site. Workers collapsed in cots. Hope faded. A black mutt ran around, sweetly oblivious, the only living creature on the site that did not have a cloud of worry in its eyes.

The most compelling figure on the scene that day was the wife of trapped miner Mark Popernack, known to everyone on the scene as "Missy." Every few hours, Missy could be spotted walking slowly around the site, a blonde woman in a military fatigue jacket and plaid shorts, her face stony but determined.

According to Doug Custer, a friend of Missy's and one of the nine miners who had escaped the flooded tunnel, she was the only family member on the site that day.

When the rescue operators asked her to remain at the Sipesville firehouse with the rest of the family members, she refused to budge, telling them, according to one friend of hers who was at the scene, that there was no way in hell she was leaving until she saw him come out of the ground, dead or alive.

"Whatever the truth is, I can handle it," she told them, with the indomitable spirit of a coal miner's wife. Her courage and frankness was inspiring to many of the workers, and a vivid reminder of what was at stake.

Perhaps the most sobering sight, however, was presence of a Ed Ebersole, the pastor of a Lutheran church in nearby Duncansville. I first noticed him while he was watching over some children who were playing inside a Medivac helicopter parked on the site. In his black shirt and minister's collar, Ebersole was a somber but oddly comforting sight, even for a supposedly detached journalist like myself. He seemed to drift around all day, moving quietly from one group to another, presumably laying the groundwork the moment when everyone would turn to him for solace and comfort.

Whether he had any influence in engineering any divine intervention that may have led to the survival of these men is not for me to say. But the sight of those miners rising out of the ground, wet and black but alive, sure made us doubters feel humble.

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN contributers share their experiences in covering news around the world.




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