• U.S.

Nine Came Up. One Went Back

14 minute read
David Van Biema and Simon Crittle/Somerset

One night last November, Randy Fogle was snoring in bed. His wife Annette poked him and told him to roll over. This has happened regularly over 24 years of marriage. But on this particular night, Randy said, “I can’t.” Annette asked why not. “I can’t,” he repeated. “If I roll over, I’m going to drown.” Months later, thinking back on the incident, Annette smiles ruefully. “I let it go,” she says. “I figured in his mind he was back underground.”

That Randy Fogle should dream of drowning is not surprising. Unlike the millions of other people who battle demons or wolves or rising waters on their bad nights, Fogle actually lived the nightmare, escaping only at the last minute. A year ago, in the midst of a bad case of level-orange jitters about national security, Americans got a bit of good news. After three days of suspense, nine miners who had crouched 240 ft. beneath a dairy farm in Somerset County, Pa., gasping as the last of their air leached away, were delivered from their flooded mine. The first figure millions of TV viewers saw emerge from the land of the dead, cradled in a yellow rescue capsule, was the crew foreman, Randy Fogle, 45, sent up before the others because he had developed a heart palpitation.

No, the occasional nightmare seems natural. Far more surprising is that today, a year after the disaster, Fogle, as he has been doing each workday for the past six months, will go down into the mine. He will descend and walk through tunnels that were deathtraps, past sledgehammer marks that commemorate his crew’s desperate attempts to be heard on the surface, past the date, time and initials he scrawled in chalk on a coal face the day of the disaster–7/24/02 3:55 p.m. RF. Fogle is the only one of the rescued miners who has returned.

On July 24 last year, shortly before 9 p.m., a mirror in the Fogle bathroom crashed to the floor, startling Annette. At almost the same instant, millions of gallons of water in an abandoned mine slammed through a thin coal wall and into the working mine, called Quecreek No. 1, where her husband and his eight-man crew were drilling bituminous coal. “It blew hard,” he now says. “It was moving fast. Oh, man, it was wicked.” Over the next 78 hours, the nine men fled rust-colored torrents through 4-ft.-high tunnels and ended up stranded in a huge air bubble. Its oxygen became so depleted that by the time their rescuers managed to bore a fresh air hole for them, they had begun to vomit.

No one passed this unimaginable trial by water better than Fogle. In the first chaotic minutes, he picked up Dennis Hall, who had fallen into the swift-running current, and threw him to the safety of a raised conveyor belt. “He saved my life right there,” says Hall. Later, Fogle risked his own life driving a coal scooper into a cataract to rescue miner Mark Popernack, who was stranded on the other side. It is Fogle who is acknowledged to have kept his crew focused, adamantly refusing to let them give in to despair. If anyone epitomized their fierce solidarity, which Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker captured in the phrase “Nine for nine” before he had even met them, Fogle did so.

For the most part, the nine, many of whom have known one another from childhood, have maintained that unity. Confronted with the craziness, boosterism and venality that attend every American miracle, they found strength in group identity. They greeted George W. Bush together, attended NASCAR races and Pittsburgh Steelers training camp in large subunits, and still hunt and fish together. Early on, when scores of reporters and producers a day called, jockeying for the story, the nine agreed to sell their rights to Disney and split the money evenly, at $150,000 apiece. With their anniversary looming, five of them gathered at a local church, signed autographs and subjected themselves yet again to the attentions of the press, as local and national outlets squabbled for sound bites. (“That was worse than being trapped in the mine,” Hall joked afterward.) They have maintained a common restraint following the suicide last month of Bob Long, an expert surveyor who aided the rescue and received his own deal from Disney after being touted on TV as “the man behind the miracle.” Long’s uneasy relationship with the miners–he called them “bastards” once–may have had something to do with his despair, although the parties are said to have reconciled before his death. Fogle, echoing the off-the-record comments of his colleagues, will say only, “It’s a shame. Everyone did such a good job to get us out, and then something like that happens.”

But there are two key ways in which Fogle’s road diverges from his friends’. One is his refusal to join a lawsuit. In May, six of the miners (the other abstainers were Mark Popernack and John Unger) filed a civil suit against Quecreek’s operator, Black Wolf Coal Co., claiming that it should have known how close the water hazard next door was. Fogle opted out. The second divergence is his decision to go back into the mine. Some say the two are intimately connected.

“I love mining,” says Fogle. “If I had to work in a factory, I’d go nuts. You can’t walk away from it. The challenge. It’s something different every day. It’s Mother Nature–that’s what you’re fighting. You’re taking the coal from it. It was put there millions of years ago, and it wants to stay there.” Fogle is a barrel-chested man with a substantial belly, a frequent high-pitched laugh and the easy authority of someone who has directed tough men for years under difficult conditions. The doctors got his heart rate under control shortly after the escape but put him on a lifelong medication. They warned him that the experience had aggravated an esophageal condition and told him to quit drinking and taking snuff. As he recounts this, he maneuvers a large wad of Skoal from his lower lip up into his cheek, evidence of a 20-can-a-week habit. “Some stuff you can do without,” he says. “And some stuff you can’t.” On his living-room walls are a wild boar he shot in Tennessee and a bass he caught in Maryland, a beer-stein collection and a photo of the nine standing in front of one of the huge water pumps that helped save them.

His reasons for going back into the mine pile up on top of one another like chunks of coal clunking into a hopper, none obviously bigger or more important than the next. In addition to the joy of battling Mother Nature, there’s the money. The $150,000 may help him retire early, but meanwhile “I was off six months, and you have to have a job.” He has no memory of the drowning dream described by his wife. Unlike most of the other eight miners, several of whom claim to be depressed and/or on Paxil, he says he sees no psychiatrists and takes no sedatives. Not that he disparages the others’ requirements or choices. He looks up at the photo. “All nine of us will be friends forever,” he says. “It’s just that everybody needs to make their own decision about what they need in life or what they feel they need to do. That’s where it’s at.”

Maybe it’s about being foreman. Some people have explained Fogle’s decisions by citing a simple workplace class distinction: he is not a mere laborer; he is management. This distinction has ramifications extending beyond the fact that he made $18 an hour to his men’s $15. It suggests that he identifies with Black Wolf more fully than the others, sees his employers in a kinder light and is more comfortable returning. Observes Jim Lamont, Pennsylvania safety representative for the United Mine Workers of America: “I expected him to go back sooner than he did.” One of the nine has suggested a deeper and more specific connection between Fogle and his bosses. Blaine Mayhugh reportedly told a U.S. Senate labor subcommittee that Fogle knew that managers of the mine were worried about its safety before the accident. Specifically, Mayhugh alleged last October that while he and Fogle were underground “on our deathbeds,” Fogle said he had been told earlier by Black Wolf owner David Rebuck that “[Rebuck] was scared that we were mining up there.” Rebuck has denied the account.

At least two of the nine doubt that Mayhugh got it right. Says miner Dennis Hall: “Some things Blaine said, I don’t believe.” Fogle, in his even-tempered way, suggests his comments in the cave were misreported: “It’s changed a lot from what I did say.” He had indeed spoken to management about leaving the area because of water, he says–not the millions of gallons in the abandoned mine but increasing amounts of groundwater. “I wanted to move off because it was slowing us down, and not really that it was a danger.”

Fogle is a valuable weapon for Black Wolf at a time when the disaster has received scrutiny in connection with not only the lawsuit but also five other inquiries (one criminal investigation and four federal and state safety proceedings, including the Senate’s). The only one that has presented its report, a Pennsylvania gubernatorial safety commission, handed down 48 recommendations. The Mine Workers’ Lamont, who sat on the commission, claims that only a few have been carried out. Fogle, by contrast, reports glowingly that a similar accident “should never happen again [at Quecreek].” The company now does extensive exploratory drilling to detect hazards near its operation, he says, and “what we now try to do to prevent what happened to us will save a lot of lives through time.” He says that since returning to work, he has been promoted from section foreman to shift foreman, but at no hourly raise. Beyond making a living, he says, “I don’t do this for the money.”

Why, then? He has always been driven. He would work on weekends. This is the first year Annette, 41, recalls their spending their anniversary together. A decade ago, they decided to take a rare week’s vacation with their three young children, on a lake well out of town. By mid-week, Randy could stand it no more. He drove back to the mine, put in a day’s work and returned to the family campsite that night, repeating the routine every day until their so-called holiday ended.

He subscribes to a kind of natural conservatism, an inclination toward continuity. People outside the coal patch have assumed that the Quecreek Nine could retire or simply take up a new trade. It’s not so simple as that, not even for “heroes,” even in an area in which coal is not the monocultural juggernaut it once was. (Two of the nine were offered jobs as prison guards, which not everyone would consider a step up.) Moreover, for those whose family trees have been pruned by generation after generation of mining mishaps, danger is counterbalanced by pride and fatalism. “My wife’s granddad died in a rockfall before her dad was born,” says Fogle. “My mom’s dad died the same way. My uncle on her side had his leg took off from it. It’s a tough job, but you’ve got to love it or you won’t do it.” And Fogle possesses one additional strand of bituminous DNA that some of his crew may lack: proprietorship. Until it closed when he was a child, the nearest mine to young Randy Fogle’s home was named the Fogle Coal Co.–after his family, which owned it. “It was hand-loading,” he says fondly, from the vantage point of today’s mostly automated industry. “You know, you just drill it and shoot it, load it in a cart and send it up.”

Annette Fogle is too smart to tell her man what to do more than once. Less than a week after he was hoisted out of the ground, Randy stood in their kitchen and said, “I think I could go back.” At the time, she would have none of it. “I said, ‘We’re not going to go there. We’re not going to have this discussion.'” The subject went dormant for the next few months, as Randy felt his way through the novel labyrinths of movie offers and government inquiries. Annette enjoyed his unprecedented presence, enjoyed not having to worry about whether he would make it home. But before he even raised the issue again last November, she knew what was coming. “It was just the way he talked about the mine. He loves his job,” she says. Randy knew his children didn’t approve–his 11th-grade daughter Brittany fainted dead away when she first learned he was trapped, and she has difficulty talking about it to this day. His sons, both older, expressed their opposition, but, he says, “I think they knew I was going.” Annette gave in graciously. “I thought, ‘O.K., it’s time for him to go back,'” she jokes. “You can only have so much togetherness.'”

Randy Fogle and another of the miners, John Unger, do some motivational speaking, sometimes for money and sometimes for free. Not long ago, he talked to 5,000 children in Pittsburgh. “I told them,” he says, “the thing that saved us was God and the people who rescued us. That’s the bottom line. But we never gave up. So no matter what you do or what you’re in, if you always try, you are going to get what you want. The basic thing is to never give up.” The message sounds fairly predictable, until he happens to mention what he hopes they got out of it. “I hope they do better,” Fogle says. “And try to stay in something.”

Staying in something, staying as something, are important to him. Part of the expectation of events like the Quecreek rescue is that they will be transformative. If there’s a miracle, there must be a corresponding conversion; people must come away changed. A regular at the Summit Mills Grace Brethren Church, Fogle goes along up to a point. He says he can “guarantee” that God played a role in saving his crew. “With that magnitude of accident, we should be dead.” But he gets a little irritated at people asking him how the experience changed him. “I mean, it has,” he says. “But if you let it change you to the point of changing what you believed to begin with, then you were nothing to begin with.”

It’s 1 P.M. when Fogle begins to get antsy. His shift starts at 2, and it’s only a 20-minute drive, but he likes to get there early. He jams a blue baseball cap on his head, turns to Annette and says, “I’m gonna go.” She replies, “O.K., let me pack you lunch.” Brittany, eager to help out, slathers a little extra mayonnaise on his bologna. He grabs the sandwich and pecks his wife on the lips. She tells him she loves him–offhandedly, casually, the way such things go. And then Fogle strides out of his kitchen, through his living room and out the screen door, gets into his Toyota pickup and takes off down the back road toward the mine.

For a photo essay on the rescue site and on the lives of the miners a year later, see time.com

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