- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

You'll never find an atheist in a foxhole, as every soldier knows, and you'll rarely find one trapped at the bottom of a coal mine.

Or at the top of the shaft, either, where wives, mothers and sweethearts wait, with their hearts in their throats. For three agonizing days, the nation waited with them, praying for nine men trapped far below a Pennsylvania meadow at the bottom of a dark, cold mine shaft flooded with filthy water.

When they were finally pulled to safety, long after most of us had given up hope, the thanks went first to God, and then to the men who had worked past exhaustion to save their lives. A handwritten message, put in the window of Andrea's Restaurant and set against an American flag, said it all for the citizens of Quecreek, Penn.:

"Thank you God 9 for 9."

All along the streets in the town and on the highway leading into town a visitor was overwhelmed with the evidence of thanksgiving. One billboard spelled it out in lights: "God gave us a miracle." Gov. Mark Schweiker, who presided over the rescue effort and kept up the spirits of family, friends and drillers, agreed: "When I told the families the men were alive," the governor said, "someone yelled, 'Praise the Lord!'"

"Miracle" was a word that even the irreligious were tempted to employ, because the rescue was the ultimate million-to-one shot. No one even knew exactly where the men were. The maps of the coal mines that honeycomb the limestone beneath southwest Pennsylvania are old, and probably never were accurate. So when Joseph Sbaffoni, chief of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, spread the maps out to determine where to sink the rescue shaft, he could only say: "You look at the maps, you try to get as close as you can, and then it's by guess and by God."

Such rescue attempts are not nearly as common as they once were. Coal mining has become more mechanized; strip mining, digging from the top down, is far more common that it was in the early and middle years of the previous century, when cave-ins and collapses were frequent.

The dark is never quite so black as at the bottom of a mine, and religion is never quite so heartfelt as when all other hope has vanished. And nothing quite so quickly captures the public's attention and fascination as the rescue of man when he is buried alive, the attempt to beat man's most primitive terror. They still sing the ballad of Floyd Collins in the hills of Kentucky, about the young spelunker who was trapped in a cave deep below the surface of the earth and died when lodged beneath a fallen boulder, but not before a Baptist preacher crawled a half-mile on his belly to read Scripture to him, and hear his Christian testimony. Two decades later the nation stood still for a week while rescuers raced to save little Kathy Fiscus, a tot who fell into an abandoned shaft. She, too, died alone with her terror.

But the old-time religion that is such a puzzle to the sophisticated class far from the mine shaft is commonplace in the hills and hollows of the coal country, where Gospel music and the familiar cadences of revivalist fervor often overwhelm the rap, the pop and even the Nashville sound when rural folk heed the call to "turn your radio on."

"I feel wonderful," said Dr. Russell Dumire, who directed the medical attention lavished on the nine miners at the end of a 25-story ride in the tiny tubular "elevator" that lifted them back to life. "In my mind, it's truly a miracle."

Offering thanks to God was not the only phenomenon to offend the sophisticated class. When the miners arrived at the hospital, where they were examined by physicians who were astonished by how well they had survived their 72 hours in cold, polluted water, they asked for horrors! a chew of tobacco.

The plaintive cry of one miner that he needed "a chew, real bad," so puzzled the reporter for The Washington Post that he offered an explanation that would have certainly puzzled any snuff-dipper: "Chewing snuff substitutes for smoking in places where smoking can be suicidal."

Naturally the men were barely out of their tomb, back in the embrace of family and friends, before the sophisticated class began speculating on what the rescue could have done for the fortunes of Gov. Schweiker. Too bad for the speculators, but Mr. Schweiker, who became governor when Tom Ridge resigned to go to Washington to secure the homeland, is not running for election this year. The successful rescue, which might well have translated to votes, will be his only reward. But not such a bad reward, the prayers of thanksgiving ringing in his ears.

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