SIPESVILLE — On July 24, 2002, Randy Fogle and his crew of eight hardened coal miners had no idea what awaited them at the end of the Quecreek Mine shaft where they planned to dig that night. Further still from their minds was the knowledge that the whole country would soon know their names and faces – that they would be on the receiving end of hopeful prayers from around the world.
It didn’t take long for the story of the nine coal miners to reach the national stage – family men trapped underground, facing death in the guise of rising mine water near the small town of Sipesville. Once the first news conference was held around 1 a.m. July 25, it seemed every news outlet wanted a piece of the story.
The New York Times flew in reporters; CNN, MSNBC and Fox News sent live trucks. By the weekend, nearly 200 news organizations jockeyed for elbow room in retail parking lots and on press corps buses headed to the rescue site.
CNN’s first headline on July 25 read, “Mining town residents wait, pray for good news.” It was “All nine pulled alive from mine” on July 27.
On the entertainment side, Disney moved first, commissioning a book and a made-for-TV movie detailing the miners’ struggle.
The book, “Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith,” was written by Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell. Goodell had been on the scene reporting for CNN as the Quecreek drama unfolded, and the miners tapped him to write the book.
With him through the delicate and emotional interview process was screenwriter Elwood Reid, who penned “The Pennsylvania Miners’ Story,” which debuted on national airwaves on Nov. 24, 2002.
It took Goodell only six weeks to finish the book, compiled as an oral record straight from the miners’ mouths.
He and Reid started by touring the miners’ homes with pads of paper and an audio recorder.
Their task was to get men used to working in dark corridors and trusting only a small, tight-knit group of people to open up about the most traumatic event of their lives.
“I covered it in real time, as it was happening,” Goodell said, describing the miners’ ordeal as “a harrowing, near-death experience.”
“What would be harder for them would be going through what happened to them after they came out,” he said.
Goodell said some of the miners shone in the limelight more than others. He described the aftermath and ensuing media blitz as “very traumatic and emotionally difficult.
“They’re not used to Katie Couric calling on their answering machine,” he said.
In 77 grueling, frantic hours, the miners had hit the big time. Shortly after the movie and book deal that netted them each $150,000, they even got an agent: Steve Reich, president of Pittsburgh-based ReichPM.
“Helping people like the Quecreek miners is not my normal job description, but it was something I felt strongly about,” Reich said. “The story was so powerful to us that we wanted to help in any way we could.”
Harry “Blaine” Mayhugh, in particular, exuded a natural charisma in front of the camera and was even invited on public speaking tours. Reich said Mayhugh was “probably the most comfortable of them all.
“I think part of it was because he was the youngest guy there,” he said. “Most of the guys were very uncomfortable with the notoriety. These really are humble, nice guys ... (they involved themselves) to the extent that they could make a few dollars for their families in a professional way, but they were very humble. They were a joy to be around.”
In “Our Story,” the miners’ realization that they’ve just become celebrities is illustrated in shocked expletives.
The rescue team asked miner John Phillippi, “Do you realize how many people are up here?”
“There’s probably going to be, you know, your normal rescue team,” Phillippi replied.
“There’s thousands of people up here, and you’re on worldwide TV,” the rescuer explained.
“I relayed that message to the other guys. And it was like, ‘Holy s---.’ ”
But as appearances on “Oprah” and “Letterman” and interviews grew tiring, some just wanted it to be over, Reich said.
He said they kept joking with him, “Are our 15 minutes up yet?”
“Our Story” landed on the New York Times best-seller list for a period.
Goodell said he thinks it’s “the best record of what these men went through.
“As a piece of journalism, I’m very proud of it,” he said.