Ten helmets symbolize the nine rescued Pennsylvania miners and God at the worship celebration of thanks in Somerset, Pa. CNN photo.
As pastor of Mount Laurel UCC in Boswell, Pa., the Rev. Joseph Beer has been summoned out of his sleep many times. But on July 24, he was called to help out in what would become a national news story and one of Beer's "greatest privileges" in his ministry.
Around 11 p.m., Beer's phone rang. There had been a mining accident at nearby Quecreek Mine. Could he come immediately to the Sipesville Fire Hall to be with worried family members?
When he arrived there, Beer noticed rescue workers already at the mining site just 50 feet away.
The mine supervisor announced that nine miners were trapped in a shaft 240 feet below the surface and had been there since 9 or 9:30 p.m.
"Things were not really chaotic," Beer says. "Families of the nine trapped miners poured in and tried to soak in all the information given to them."
Unknowingly, the miners were using an outdated map and one of them had drilled into the wall of an abandoned mine filled with water.
"He knew as soon as he hit the wall something was wrong," says Beer. "He and the other miners heard a loud rumbling noise and suddenly all nine were trapped, facing a wall made of 60 million gallons of water."
At the same time, nine other miners were in another area of the mine, closer to the opening portal, when the water surged toward them. Right away, the trapped miners knew they had to alert the other nine to get out fast. Heeding this advice, the others escaped through the entry way.
"The trapped miners are truly heroes for making that call," says Beer. "If they had not called, the other miners may have died. The trapped miners felt, 'Maybe we can't be saved, but at least they have a chance to get out.' That's the way these men are. They are a tight and loyal group with each other."
Once the first nine got out, they stayed throughout the rescue operation, helping workers pinpoint the location of the trapped miners.
Beer says the spirit of the families was basically good.
"Some, of course, broke down and cried," he says, "but for the most part, none of them ever gave up hope. We prayed together and I listened as different people would tell humorous anecdotes about their loved ones still trapped beneath the earth."
Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker asked Beer to lead everyone in a prayer. "Many denominations and their clergy, Protestant and Catholic, were represented," says Beer. "But we all prayed together. There was such a great spirit of togetherness."
Slowly, hours gave way to days, but everyone was confident that the nine trapped miners were still alive.
On Sunday, July 28, just before 1 a.m., Gov. Schweiker announced that all of the miners were alive and about to be brought up. The families had 30 seconds to make an important decision: Did they want to share this rescue with the world or keep it private? TV stations were prepared to go live with their coverage as soon as they had the go ahead. The families agreed to the TV coverage. By 1 a.m. the first miner was brought up in a special cage; the last one came up two hours later.
As the miners were being raised, Beer was given a "good assignment." After each miner was checked by a medical team, Beer called the fire hall and told the miner's family which hospital the miner was being taken to for observation. "That task was the greatest honor in my ministry," says Beer. "I was able to give good news. I was so happy to say, 'No need to speed to the hospital. He's OK.'"
Afterward, Beer was "dead tired, but could not go to sleep." So he went to the church, where he prayed and wrote down his experience.
"I saw God at work," he says. "This was a job that had to be done. To me this whole thing was like a long journey from despair to rescue."
Helmet lights turned on
The following Sunday, a special service of prayer and thanksgiving was held at Christ Casebeer Lutheran Church in Somerset, Pa. A table held 10 candles, nine for the original miners who were warned and got out, the 10th candle being the Christ candle. Ten helmets also sat on the table. At a certain time, the light on each helmet was turned on in recognition of the trapped miner who was rescued. The 10th helmet symbolized God.
Eight of the miners said they would not go back underground. "One miner told me he has a small farm and he may become a farmer," says Beer. "I don't know what the others will do, but I know they won't be miners."
"One thing I have learned from all of this is I will never be hopeless again," Beer says.