SOMERSET, Pa. – At Adele's Diner, owner Adele Brown hasn't seen some of her regulars since the accident at the nearby Quecreek Mine trapped nine men in a water-filled passage deep below ground.
"We all have friends who are miners," said Brown, 36, who has kept her diner open for anxious residents waiting for news. Some "never went to sleep. They've been in all night watching TV."
Coal mining for generations was the lifeblood of small villages in the rural, hilly area southeast of Pittsburgh. It has dropped off in recent decades, but there are few people who don't have friends or family with connections to the mines and Wednesday night's accident is on everyone's minds.
"Coal is just about everything out here," said Roger Koontz, a manager at the Rod & Gun Club in nearby Jenners.
Koontz opens the club's bar each morning for a clientele of retired mine workers, some of whom remember the days when cave-ins and accidents were more common. The mood Friday was tense — almost everyone knows someone who works at the mine and many know the trapped workers.
"It's pretty agonizing," he said. "There is nothing else you can do. Just wait."
Coal mining has been a major industry in the area since the 1800s, when mines were set up across the hillsides, sometimes many in one town. The coal fired the steel mills of Johnstown and Pittsburgh, with the industries making fortunes for men like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.
But as mining technology evolved, many of the deep mines have closed and companies have turned to strip mining, done above ground. Chris Barklay of the Windber Coal Heritage Center said that while there were 50 or 60 mines operating in Somerset County a century ago, there are now less than 10.
Gene Spangler's father was one of those miners who worked when the industry was stronger. The 77-year-old Spangler was stunned by the accident.
"We just thought people don't mine like that any more, it's all strip mining now," he said. "And to have nine guys down there was quite a shock."
Spangler and other residents were also struggling to cope with the second disaster to hit the area in less than a year, coming after Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County on Sept. 11.
"It's been one thing after another here," said Sharon Griffith, 42. "But we care for our own here."