SOMERSET, Pa. – The last time hundreds of rescue workers and news cameras descended on this rural county, it was after a hijacked jetliner crashed into the quiet countryside on a day the nation mourned in a way it never had before.
That made the jubilation Sunday following the rescue of nine coal miners from a watery underground pit even sweeter in a community that had already lived through one catastrophe — and feared another was unfolding before its eyes.
"Once in a while, this world surprises you," said Rick Zahn, stopping by Sheetz gas station and convenience store for a doughnut and a cup of coffee on his way to a construction job Sunday. "You think that that's just the way things go, and that tragedy is part of life. Something like this sure can change the way you look at things."
Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller went from being a small-town funeral director and medical examiner to the caretaker of a national tragedy in the days and weeks after United Flight 93 slammed into a grassy field Sept. 11. The mine is located just 10 miles from the spot where the plane crashed, killing all 40 passengers and crew.
Miller again found himself preparing for the worst — the possibility of no survivors — but he was jubilant about the happy outcome this time.
"Let me just say I'm sure glad we didn't have to work today," he said Sunday. "You've got to know these miners; they're the toughest guys you'll ever see, I'll tell you that."
Miller's father, former county coroner Wilbur Miller, said the men's chances of survival in water just 50- to 55-degrees were slim — maybe six hours — had hot air not been piped down into the chamber. The elder Miller was county coroner during another great tragedy that struck the area: the Johnstown flood of 1977, which killed 77 people.
"To get that pipe drilled down close enough to those men, right there in the spot where they were, you'd have to say that is really a miracle," he said.
The emotions of the community were reflected in a sign outside a McDonald's restaurant, which read "Pray for the rescue of the miners" at the start of the ordeal but was changed by Sunday morning to "Welcome back miners! Nine alive."
About 200 yards from the mine site at the Christ Casebeer Lutheran Church, where some in the community went Sunday to offers prayers of thanks, a former miner said he understood the men's ordeal: He escaped a 1952 flood at a mine shaft in nearby Gray by scrambling out of an air vent.
"I know what they were doing. I've been there," said Harold Ankeny of Somerset. "They were praying."