In 1907, 240 coal miners went to work at the Darr Mine in Van Meter, and only one came home. Nearly one century later, nine miners went to work in the Quecreek mine in Somerset County, and all nine were rescued.
The Darr Mine disaster in Westmoreland County and nearby mine accidents with high casualties in a short time frame spurred change in government regulations, reducing fatalities and enabling rescues like that of the Quecreek miners in 2002, said John Urosek.
Urosek, a mine consultant who recently retired from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, compared the tragic explosion and the miraculous rescue at an event Thursday night at the Connellsville Canteen. Proceeds from the event benefited Fayette County Cultural Trust and FRIENDS of Carnegie Free Library.
"As you all know, our entire area is mining," Urosek said to the group. "As a matter of fact, there's probably a mine under most of your houses, if you live in the Connellsville area."
December 1907 was the deadliest month in coal mining history, beginning Dec. 1 with 35 miners killed at the Naomi Mine in Fayette County and continuing with deadly explosions in West Virginia, Alabama, New Mexico and the Darr Mine.
"It was really a tough, tough month, and that's really when the government got involved," he said.
At the time, coal mine bosses were notoriously cruel, he said. They paid miners 50 cents per wagon of coal, and most of the miners' profits returned to the mining company through company stores. It was not understood then how explosive coal dust was. Methane buildups due to limited ventilation often caused fire balls, leading to the disasters.
Shortly before the Darr Mine disaster Dec. 19, 1907, workers were reportedly complaining about the lack of ventilation in the mines. Children as young as five and wives often sneaked into the mines to help the miners, so it was never determined how many people actually died in the coal mine that day.
The only survivor happened to be outside the mine when the explosion occurred, Urosek said. The mine was 10,000 feet deep and one mile wide at the time of the disaster.
In 2002, a disaster was narrowly averted in Quecreek when nine miners were trapped underground for 77 hours after water flooded the tunnels. Urosek said regulations prohibit mining too close to water sources, but mine maps were inadvertently approved. A joint effort between government and military agencies, non-profit organizations and local first responders enabled the rescue of all nine miners.
He showed a map of the mine and the rising water, which only missed a tiny corner of the mine. At one point, only 70 feet of the mine remained dry, where the nine miners were huddled. They watched the water rise and wrote notes to their family members, expecting they would soon die.
The rescue mission involved drilling a hole for rescue while stabilizing pressure and pumping water from the mine, all on a deadline as the miners had limited oxygen.
"I'll be honest with you. Did I really think that was going to work?" Urosek said, explaining the complex procedure and frequent hangups.
The rescue was unlikely, he said. Experts gave only a 50 percent chance of survival for those trapped. They expected if the miners were alive, they would be in poor health.
"The experts are telling us, these guys are on their last legs. You don't have hours. You have minutes, and you already used them," he said.
He described the rescue as miraculous, saying every person there contributed a small piece of the puzzle to determine how to save the miners.
"In my career, it's the only time we've saved all the miners on an accident," he said.