restricted access Chapter 5: “Deep Veins of Loss”: Sacrifice and Heroism in Coal Country
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“Deep Veins of Loss” Sacrifice and Heroism in Coal Country John Seigenthaler (anchor): More than 100 years ago hundreds of thousands of miners toiled in the mines of Pennsylvania, and coal was king. Now the number has dwindled to about 8,000 miners in the state, but they still come from proud communities. Virginia Cha (reporter): Quecreek, Pennsylvania, one of the small towns that make up Somerset Country, a close-knit coal mining community that supports its own when trouble strikes. . . . People in these parts say mining is in the blood. As far back as the 1870s, miners have worked deep down inside the shafts that burrow through southwestern Pennsylvania countryside, bringing up the coal that fueled the industrial revolution. . . . This community is no stranger to pain. On September 11th, Flight 93 went down just 10 miles from here in a field that used to be a coal mine. . . . A community built on a respected way of life, now pulling together. —NBC Nightly News (July 27, 2002) This language—full of truth and stereotypes, local news and national mythology —was typical of American news reporting in late July 2002, when an accident trapped nine workers in the Quecreek Mine in western Pennsylvania. A day after this report aired, the miners were rescued in an event that was hailed by the media, as well as the Pennsylvania governor and the U.S. president, as a miracle. Coal mine accidents have occurred with regularity for more than a century, and several explosions in this particular region of southwestern Pennsylvania have drawn national attention: 179 workers died in the Harwick Mine in 1904, 239 in the Darr Mine near Jacobs Creek in 1907, 195 in the Mather Mine in 1928, and as recently as 1962, 37 at the Robena Mine in Carmichaels. Yet nothing paralleled the international spotlight that shone on the rescue of the 92   Pennsylvania in Public Memory Quecreek Nine, who were raised to safety on the Dormel Farms in Sipesville, a town not far from the field where United Flight 93 had crashed on September 11, 2001. Journalists immediately made a narrative connection between the two events, focusing on characters whose symbolism was well understood by the summer of 2002. Among the locals interviewed by news media while the rescue was under way was Sipesville Fire Chief Mark Zambanini, whose company had responded to the Flight 93 crash less than a year earlier and who vowed, “We’re going to succeed.”1 After meeting the miners, President George W. Bush declared , “It was their determination to stick together and to comfort each other that really defines kind of a new spirit that’s prevalent in our country, that when one of us suffers, all of us suffer.”2 One reader letter appearing in USA Today claimed that “just as cops and firemen received our respect after Sept. 11, the miners who put their lives on the line every day deserve dutiful regard as well,” while another reader wrote, “Ten months later, we now experience how this miracle of the miners turns the darkness into light.”3 The rescue was seen as a form of redemption not only for the losses of 9/11 but also for the declining economic climate in mid-2002, amid discoveries of widespread corporate fraud. CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod editorialized, “After a steady diet of Wall Street villains, it’s kind of nice to feed on some lunch bucket heroes.”4 Seven years later, as this chapter was being written, the “Wall Street villains” of 2002 were long forgotten, as the nation’s top banks, insurers, and car companies filed for bankruptcy and federal bailouts while America descended into its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But busloads of tourists continue to pay tribute to the “lunch bucket heroes” at the rescue site, which is still a large, working farm. There, in a former auction-house building converted to a museum, they can see the yellow rescue capsule that brought each miner to the surface (the event’s iconic artifact, whose ownership was unsuccessfully pursued by the Smithsonian) and hear an hour-long account of the three-day rescue delivered by Lori Arnold, the daughter-in-law of the farm’s owners. Then Karen Popernack, stepmother of rescued miner Mark Popernack, takes visitors down to the rescue site itself, past a large statue of a miner and the state historical marker that was installed in 2006. They get international tour groups; they also get...


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Subject Headings

  • Industrial archaeology -- Pennsylvania.
  • Historic sites -- Conservation and restoration -- Pennsylvania.
  • Collective memory -- Pennsylvania.
  • Heritage tourism -- Pennsylvania.
  • Industries -- Pennsylvania -- History.
  • Working class -- Pennsylvania -- History.
  • Deindustrialization -- Pennsylvania -- History.
  • Pennsylvania -- Economic conditions.
  • Pennsylvania -- Social conditions.
  • Pennsylvania -- History, Local.
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