Changing the Frame

Late on the evening of July 24, 2002, a team of nine coal miners, working 250 feet underground accidentally broke through into an adjacent abandoned mine shaft. Immediately 75,000,000 gallons of water began pouring into the site where they were working and the miners scrambled up slope in the 4-foot high mine shaft to escape the rising water.

Within minutes Quecreek Mine in southwestern Pennsylvania became the emotional focus of the world. And within minutes help began to arrive at the mine head. Engineers, mining experts, seismologists, authorities from the Pennsylvania Division of Mines, company officials, representatives from the producers of mining equipment… Even the Governor, Mark Schweiker, visited the site that night and said at a news briefing that “they are in a very fragile state. We may need a little help from the Almighty.” He also stated that “We are bringing every asset that is necessary to complete this rescue operation,” and that anything less than the rescue of all nine of the men would be unacceptable.

The water kept rising in the mine and the miners’ emotions swung between hope and despair. At one point the would-be rescuers estimated they had an hour to rescue the miners or they would all drown. But there was the matter of 250 feet of solid rock to drill through to reach them. Sensing the inevitable the miners decided to rope themselves together – if they died, they would die together.

State Police Cpl. Robert Barnes Jr. telephoned the families of the miners asking them to come to the Sipesville firehouse. Methodist pastor, Barry Ritenour, was called to spend the night to bring support to the families. Rescue efforts moved into “whatever-it-takes” mode.

A six-inch hole was drilled to where it was believed the miners were trapped, to allow air to enter. Drilling began but halfway to its destination, the drill bit broke. Normally it’s a three-day turn-around to replace it; three hours later one was delivered by helicopter. It was determined that extracting the miners would be via a 26-inch diameter basket that would be lowered into the mine. The closest bit large enough to drill a hole that size was located in Clarksburg, WV; two hours later it was at the mine site. Seventy-seven hours after the emergency began, all nine of the miners stood safely at the head of the mine.

I remember how much hullabaloo was made about the spirit of the trapped miners. How brave they were. What kindred spirits…they would escape together or die together. Noble. I’ll give them all that, but the story would have ended differently had it not been for the inveterate, indefatigable responders at the top. They were focused. Committed. They wouldn’t quit. Some of them didn’t take their clothes off for three days.

So let me change the frame around this picture. The folks who are trapped in the hole, who can’t find their way out, helpless, in the dark, bereft of hope, are those who have been swamped by what life has thrown at them. There is no tomorrow unless someone shows up who cares. We’re talking about shackles here. About the death sentence. Except…

Except for that cluster of determined lovers. Those who are “bringing every asset that is necessary to complete this rescue operation.” Those who work in “whatever-it-takes” mode. Incessant intercessors. Caring. Whatever it takes. Focused. Committed. They won’t quit. Not until everyone who wants rescue stands free.

That’s my church.

By Don Jacobsen

Written by Diane Levy


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