By Michael Jones
SOMERSET, Pa. – A lush, green field with nine evergreen trees and a metal grate covering a small hole is all that remains of the place where a miracle occurred six years ago.
To strangers passing by, the field looks like nothing more than a peaceful park in rural Somerset County in Southwestern Pennsylvania. But it holds more significance to many people.
It was at this site in July 2002 that nine miners survived underground for more than four days after water rushed into the Quecreek Mine. As the miners huddled in frigid water with dwindling air, hundreds of people worked tirelessly above to rescue the men.
The property owners, Bill and Lori Arnold, know the story intimately and revel in explaining the desperation, sadness and courage exhibited during those days.
“It’s something we didn’t ask to happen here, and we didn’t go seeking it. It found us,” Bill Arnold said. “We feel like we have this place for a reason, so we’re very committed to maintaining it and continuing to tell the story.”
“We’re humbled,” Lori Arnold added. “If God had placed (the rescue) here, it’s our job to keep it going.” And they have.
The couple estimates that nearly 1,000 tour buses have rolled onto their 135-acre organic dairy farm since the miners were rescued July 28, 2002.
On a brisk April afternoon this year, Lori Arnold cheerfully greeted two curious strangers who stumbled upon the rescue site. Hunched over and pulling weeds, she introduced herself and, without hesitation, began explaining the incredible events that unfolded 240 feet below.
She remembers the faces of the rescue workers, the families and the children that came to the farm, especially their expressions of sadness and joy. She recalled the starlit sky, humming of machinery and glowing lights around the area that reminded her more of a high school football stadium than a frantic rescue mission.
“To look at that you’d never know something so sad and desperate was going on underneath,” said Lori Arnold.
Even six years later, caring for the Quecreek Mine rescue site has become a priority over the daily chores on the farm. But they have embraced the work and enjoy accepting visitors daily.
“It is so exciting for us even in the sixth year,” Lori Arnold said. “This is me. It’s part of who I am. Every year I become more passionate. I can’t explain it.”
Her husband still becomes emotional at the thought of the rescue.
“I have a hard time getting through the story without getting choked up,” he said. “It’s been such a blessing, and we never lost the impact and magnitude for either one of us.”
Both are amazed by the number of people from across the world who have traveled to the farm four miles north of Somerset. The visitors seek them out, they said, to learn the details of a story that still seems unbelievable.
Near the rescue portal is a large garage that used to house farm equipment. Now it shelters dozens of precious items that were integral to the success of the rescue mission or explain the history of mining.
The yellow cylindrical basket that pulled each miner to safety stands next to the broken drill bit that nearly doomed the rescue. All the items are neatly arranged around the garage for visitors to inspect and even touch. The Arnolds describe the rescue timeline while pointing to maps and equipment.
The couple hopes to begin construction of a permanent building this month. The visitors center could be completed by the winter depending on donations to the nonprofit Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation the couple started.
The rescue site and nine evergreen trees – one for each of the miners – has become a place for people to reflect. Some visitors had family members who worked or died in the mines. Others just want to hear the intricate details of an inspirational story that is best told by the
Many leave with dropped jaws and tears flowing down their cheeks.
“There’s so much more to the story,” Bill Arnold said. “It really does make an impact.”
(Michael Jones is a writer at the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. This story first appeared in the newspaper's July-August 2008 magazine, Living in Washington County.)