SOMERSET, Pa. – A sleepy Pennsylvania town woke up Sunday to celebrate that it really did have nine lives, thanks to men of steel who drilled their way down to the nation's newest heroes, hearty coal miners.
"9 for 9," shouted a sign just down the road from where the nine were yanked, one by one, just hours before through a 26-inch-wide tunnel from 240 feet below the earth.
Their coal-covered faces managed smiles. At least two gave a thumbs up. Another waved as their cold, wet bodies were slipped out from a 7-foot-tall yellow cage and onto a stretcher.
As floodlights cut through the early-morning darkness Sunday, more than 150 rescuers greeted the nine rescued miners with applause, shouting nicknames like "Harpo," "Boogie" and "Snootie."
Miner Doug Custer had cried and prayed for three days, knowing he was alive only because the trapped men managed to shout to him and other miners to run for safety Wednesday as an avalanche of water from an abandoned, adjacent mine raced their way.
"They are the heroes," said Custer, 45. "If not for them, there'd be dead bodies."
There were other heroes, too. Experts in drilling deep holes and scientists who imagined the conditions deep inside the mine theorized what it would take to save the miners.
In almost every instance, the rescuers turned out to be right.
The compressed air delivered through a small, drilled hole really did give the trapped men an oxygen-rich air bubble, and a measure of warmth and hope.
Numerous pumps and wells extracted enough water from the mine that a 26-inch drill bit could crash through the ceiling without causing more flooding and harming the men.
And the ever-resourceful Nine, as they will forever be known, really were able to find refuge from the water and share body warmth enough to survive.
"How do you like us now?" rescue worker Dan Walker asked Custer as Walker and the others poked through to the trapped men.
"I love you guys!" Custer shouted.
The first rescued miner gave his thumbs up with hands wrinkled by long exposure to cold water and damp air.
"He was in distress, but he was alive," said Chris Harmon, a West Virginian who helped drill the rescue shaft.
Another miner, weighing more than 300 pounds, seemed ready to burst from the 2-foot-wide container.
"Everybody seemed they were happy to be out of that cold, dark, wet place," Harmon said.
Just hours earlier, the mood in a giant gravel pit had been downcast. As two separate holes were being made to lower the rescue pod, both drills stopped, one broken and one useless until the cave's water level was lowered.
It sounded like jet engines shutting down, restoring quiet to a countryside where cattle grazed and Canada geese glided across a pond earlier in the day.
Then, shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday, a giant new water pump and some maneuvering of other pumps brought the water level down enough to begin the final descent.
Less than an hour later, more exasperation: As the drill reached within a dozen feet of the trapped miners, a broken seal required repair.
It was after 10 p.m. when more than a dozen men, hard hats holding back what for many of them was graying hair, stopped the drill and leaped excitedly to an adjacent rig that pumped the compressed air to the miners. They shut off all their machines and pitched their ears at the pipe like they were tuning a piano.
They thought they heard a ping from down below, a precious hint of life.
With fresh energy, the weary workers tossed aside heavy equipment, steel poles and chunks of wood as if they were matchsticks.
Through a narrow hole, the workers dangled a neon green light and a telephone from a line that men in a 100-foot row passed along like a bucket brigade.
"What took you guys so long?" cracked the first voice through the phone, eliciting smiles from the weary workers.
Then even better news: Everyone was alive, and everyone could walk.
"There's nine men ready to get the hell out of here. We need some chew," the voice said.
The workers rejoiced in subdued, isolated moments, with hugs and handshakes and pats on the back.
The governor raced to a firehouse, where families anxiously awaited word.
"The building about fell down when they started screaming," said Mike Brant, president of the Sipesville Volunteer Fire Department.
The Sipesville volunteers carried each miner up a hill, as Gov. Mark Schweiker walked in front of the stretcher, picking up small stones and throwing them out of the way.
It was too perfect for anything to go wrong now.
"It's a miracle!" the governor exclaimed.
One miner mouthed from his stretcher, "Thank You. God Bless America."
Dr. Richard F. Kunkle, who initially treated the miners, diagnosed the joy: "Very few people here will have a more positive experience in their lives."
Rescue worker Tim Martin, 35, said the hardworking men of steel would take off Sunday and return to work Monday, drilling new holes hardly anyone cares about.
"Next time it happens, we want two of everything we need," said Martin, of Clarksburg, W.Va.