Last summer the attention of the nation and the world was riveted by the rescue that brought nine Pennsylvania coal miners out of a mine in Somerset County. In a period of economic recession full of anxieties generated by the 9/11 attack, the gripping drama of the rescue provided an inspiring, positive moment for the nation. As investigations proceed, however, broader dimensions of the story are unveiled.
The most common characterization of the incident was “miraculous.” In this conservative and religious rural area, a combination of the memory of many mining deaths, the dedication and commitment of the rescuers, and the solidarity of the trapped men triggered an outpouring of church and community sentiment. The emotion of the moment was further intensified in the national media by the fact that the September 11 crash site of United Flight 93, with its well-promoted message of courage and solidarity in the face of death, was only thirteen miles away.
The flood of testimonials to the mercy of God threatens to obscure the very human factors that led to the near-disaster. In fact, the flooding of the nonunion mine reveals much about government inadequacy stemming from chronic underfunding; government incompetence and/or complicity with powerful vested interests; corporate irresponsibility and greed; and coordinated anti-union activity. God may well have had a hand in the rescue, but human avarice and more than a century of fierce corporate manipulation and struggle for profit and control were behind the wall of water that swept into the Quecreek mine.
Most of the investigations of the July 24, 2002, near-disaster undertaken to date have focused on the failure of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to provide up-to-date mine maps. The discovery of a more recent map of previous mining than the one the state provided in 1999 when it issued a mining permit to Mincorp–sponsor of Black Wolf Coal Company, the actual operator of the mine–tended to exonerate Black Wolf owner-operator David Rebuck. Rebuck, a former Mincorp executive, even called the flooding an “act of God” in one local TV interview. In fact, Black Wolf had multiple warnings about the inadequacy of its 1957 map, drafted seven years before mining ended at the adjoining Saxman mine–the source of the Quecreek flood.
Carl Prine, a reporter for the Greensburg Tribune-Review, wrote right after the incident that “letters and public comment in 1999 from former miners, geochemists and farmers long experienced with groundwater and mine safety issues strongly urged state regulators to deny the Quecreek permit.” After the accident, one local resident, Jeffrey Bender, told the newspaper, “We all knew something like this would happen. We supported the miners and prayed for them, but we all knew what would happen, would happen. What’s frustrating for us is that we warned DEP and they seemed to be on the side of the mine, not us.”