“Lynch Was the Only Christian Among Us. But Six Christians Came Out of There.”

By Wesley G. Pippert

The rescue of a Thai soccer team stranded deep in a flooded cave brings back memories of writing about a West Virginia coal mine disaster—often called “The Miracle at Hominy Falls.”

A half century ago, in West Virginia, nearly a mile inside Saxsewell Mine No. 8,  coal miners inadvertently cut  through a wall into an underground lake. The gush of water quickly flooded the mine. Of the 25 trapped miners, 15 were hauled to safety relatively quickly. The bodies of four others were recovered, leaving the bodies of the other six  to be retrieved after  the water was pumped out.

Then the amazing happened. Ten days after the mine was flooded and  enough water had been evacuated, the six miners were found—alive—where they had huddled in a bubble of air.

At the time, in 1968, I had left UPI to work for Senator Charles Percy of Illinois for a year and a half. Christian Life, a magazine near Chicago, contacted me to go to Hominy Falls and talk with the survivors. (The article, “They Met God in a Mine Disaster,” was in the magazine’s August 1968 issue.)  The investigation into the disaster had been completed and an official report filed. My mission was to talk to the survivors about how they had survived.

The first challenge was to find Hominy Falls, a tiny hamlet tucked among the hills and hollows of the ruggedly beautiful Appalachia.

The six lost miners—four young fathers, another young man, and their leader, John Moore, a grandfather—had packed their lunches and gone into the Gauley’s Saxewell 8 as they did every day. The morning of the disaster, the main belt carried them a thousand feet into the mine and then they crawled onto other belts to take them almost a mile to their work site. Then disaster.

“Oh my God, it’s water,” shouted Joe Fitzwater. “God told me to get my dinner bucket,” said Larry Lynch, the youngest and only one who wasn’t a father.

The miners realized they couldn’t escape. The flooding shorted out the belts’ motors and sealed off their escape. As water filled the low spots they found themselves in a bubble. Though the bubble was below the level of the water around them,  Moore believes the water burst in so fast it formed a sort of air pocket.

The lunch buckets of Lynch and Joe Scarbro provided their only food. “You take a sandwich and tear it into six pieces and there’s not much left,” said Fitzwater. They slept back to back, or belly to belly, never for more than  a few hours at a time. They awakened together. Lynch wolfed down the candy bar they had, he confessed later.

They talked about their families. Faced with what seemed almost certain death, the miners prayed. “We all got to praying,” said Eugene Martin. “I cried and that sort of relieved me a lot.”  One said that at the beginning Lynch “was the only Christian among us. But six Christians came out of there.”

Rescuers had pumped water—an estimated 33 million gallons—from the underground lake and they prepared plastic bags for what they thought would be six bodies. Inside the bubble, Lynch and his crew noticed the water level was gradually dropping but not enough for them to escape.  On day 10, they heard the rescue workers. “We hollered and they came a-running!”

Among the things that stand out in my mind from writing that story were the beauty of the Appalachian countryside, yet the isolation that nature imposed on all those hollows. And the miners’ knees that looked the size of their rear ends from all that kneeling day after day.

Wes Pippert covered state capitals, Congress, and the White House. He spent nearly 30 years with United Press International, serving first in the Bismarck and Pierre capital bureaus in the Dakotas and then in Chicago before coming to Washington, D.C. in 1966. He covered three presidential campaigns, the Carter White House, was UPI’s principal on the Watergate story, and his final UPI assignment was as Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem. Then from 1989 to 2012, he directed the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington Program.

Comments

  1. Richard Mattersdorff says:

    What a great story.

  2. BARNARD COLLIER says:

    Do the knees know the difference between coal mining and prayer?

    Good story, many thanks.

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