So it’s been a crazy couple of weeks, so I thought I would come back with a crazy kind of tale. As we are all getting back from our various breaks and getting back in the groove, I thought to (while wild) keep it simple. This week I thought we could discuss the tale of the Sheppton Mine Disaster of ’63.
On August 13th of 1963 in Sheppton, PA, the roof of the Sheppton anthracite coal mine collapsed on three miners and they were trapped 300 feet below ground. What was happening above ground was historical in its own right as this was one of the first rescues where a successive series of boreholes are drilled into the earth to first reach the trapped and established contact, then make the holes progressively bigger to be able to send provisions and first aid supplies, and eventually make it big enough to haul people out. This method proved so successful that it was used in many future rescues including the Chilean mine disaster a few years back in 2010. But I am drifting off topic…
As I was saying, 3 miners were caught in the collapse…2 made it out, Henry Throne and David Fellin, but the 3rd, Louis Bova, was lost forever and considered to still be entombed in the mine. The story the 2 survivors brought with them will go down in the books as possibly one of the most intriguing things ever pulled from a mine. I am going to borrow segments from the telling of the story by William Kashatus as his telling does it more justice than I trying to but my own slant on it…
Sheppton remains one of the most dramatic events in the history of anthracite coal mining. On Tuesday, Aug. 13, 1963, miners David Fellin, 58, Hank Throne, 28, and Lou Bova, 54, were working at the Fellin Coal Company, 17 miles northwest of Tamaqua, when a cave-in trapped them some 330 feet below ground.
Fellin and Throne were caught inside a damp, cold chamber that was about 6' long, 6' wide and 6' high. Huddling against each other to stay warm, the two men feared they would be given up for dead. Bova was trapped in an adjacent chamber when the roof of the mine collapsed. Rescue crews were unable to penetrate the entrance shaft to the mine due to the threat of additional cave-ins as well as the presence of poisonous carbon dioxide.
After the first three days when all hope seemed gone, Fellin's brother, Joe, pleaded with United Mine Workers officials to locate the trapped miners by drilling a borehole
into the mine. The UMW convinced state mining officials to give it a try, and they reluctantly agreed.
Meanwhile, television crews, newspaper reporters and radio stations from around the globe descended on the small town of Sheppton, Schulkill County, to cover the rescue effort. For the next week, the world watched and wondered, not knowing for certain if the men were dead or alive.
Having been a miner for more than 40 years, Fellin didn't have much hope that they'd be rescued. He knew there was only one way into and out of the mine and that tons of rock, coal and dirt blocked it.
Fellin and Throne almost gave up hope until the fourth day when they "saw a door covered in bright blue light."
"It was very clear, better than sunlight," Fellin recalled later. "Two ordinary looking men, not miners, opened the door. We could see beautiful marble steps on the other side." Then, they were "visited by Pope John XXIII," who had died of stomach cancer 10 weeks prior to the mining disaster.
Just before midnight on Aug. 18, the rescue workers, who had been laboring for two full days, succeeded in drilling a 6-inch-wide borehole through the roof of the cramped chamber, where Fellin and Throne had sought refuge. A light and a microphone were lowered into the enclosure.
Within minutes, a rescue worker established contact with the two miners and the miraculous news that they were still alive after five days underground sent shivers to people around the world. Sadly, attempts to reach Bova in the adjacent chamber were unsuccessful and his body was never recovered.
It took nine more days to drill a 28-inch borehole, large enough to extricate the surviving miners from the chamber. Finally, on the early morning of Tuesday, Aug. 27, Throne, then Fellin were pulled to the surface wearing parachute harnesses and football helmets.
When the two miners claimed that they had been visited by Pope John XXIII, their vision was dismissed as a hallucination due to lack of food, water and oxygen. But they both insisted that the deceased pontiff stayed with them until the rescue workers were able to locate them.
"We saw him for some time but couldn't explain it," said Fellin, a devout Catholic who refused to elaborate because he "felt too deeply about all this."
Implicit in his statement was the belief that Pope John had provided the assurance the two miners needed to survive, and that their rescue was a miracle that could only be attributed to him.
The dramatic rescue effort was front-page news in virtually every newspaper across the United States. Some reported the miners' vision of the deceased Pope John XXIII, almost as if to confirm the occurrence of a religious miracle. In fact, "The Los Angeles Times" published a front-page story bearing the headline, "MINE MIRACLE."
When some newspaper reporters tried to bait Fellin and Throne suggesting that they experienced hallucinations rather than a miraculous vision, both men insisted separately and publicly that they saw the deceased pontiff.
"Now they're trying to tell me those things were hallucinations, that we imagined it all," Fellin was quoted as saying in the "Philadelphia Inquirer" of Aug. 29, 1963. "We didn't. Our minds weren't playing tricks on us. I've been a practical, hard-headed coal miner all my life. My mind was clear down there in the mine. It's still clear."
It was an emphatic declaration that Fellin took to his grave 27 years later in 1990. Throne lived 35 more years, and was just as insistent that he had witnessed a miracle.”
Hope you all enjoyed this tidbit and I may relay other tales I have picked up and filed away over the years as I am sure that you all enjoy the break from the preachy-ness every now and again. Hope you all had a good holiday and will be seeing you next week at the same Bat-Time on the same Bat-Channel.