Leadership Lessons: Deep from the Quecreek Mine Rescue - One Leader's Perspective

Leadership Lessons: Deep from the Quecreek Mine Rescue – One Leader’s Perspective

15.7 min read

Greg L. Thomas

During the last week of the month of July 2002, much of the USA was transfixed with the rescue of miners beneath the earth in Somerset, Pennsylvania. For 77 hours the news media ran constant updates on the fate of 9 trapped miners. I was one of the people who found myself attracted to the story and its outcome for a number of reasons.

First, by coincidence, while they were trapped, I stayed overnight at a Hampton Inn in Somerset, PA during a business trip. I had chosen that night and location a week earlier only because it was right off the PA Turnpike. A number of TV reporters stayed at the same facility. Secondly, the event had all the ingredients of a great news story…tragedy, fear, tension, hope, triumph and a wonderful ending. There was something else inherent in this story that was covered sparingly by the news media. It is the outstanding example of leadership demonstrated by so many fine people. In this article I would like to examine the chronological events of the rescue and provide some lessons we can all learn from them. As we go through these events and review the lessons to be learned, ask yourself how they might apply to your business, family or community.

Wednesday, July 24th
8:50 PM

A number of miners are working 240 feet below the earth mining for coal. The Quecreek mine they are laboring in is close to an older abandoned (Saxman) mine that has previously been flooded with water. Supplied with outdated maps and information, the Saxman mine is not expected to be adjacent to where they are digging. The miners accidentally break through the wall of the abandoned mine, allowing over 50 million gallons of water to rapidly flood their mining location. Nine of the miners are able to escape the waters out of the mine entrance by fleeing 1½ miles to the top. However, 9 other miners are left trapped. The waters quickly engulf the mine sealing the entrance and forcing the trapped miners to seek the highest point underground. They eventually gather together in a higher pocket of the mine, but the waters continue to swell, making the prospect of drowning a real possibility! They are virtually trapped and helpless with no possible way of escape. For a while they have radio contact with the other group of miners who escaped but they soon lose all contact. It will take a miraculous rescue to save them, or they are absolutely doomed to die. All they can do is hang on together and wait.

Leadership Lesson: These men had been trained in effective safety procedures. Because of their extensive past training they know what to do in an emergency! They gather themselves together in one location where they believe they have the best opportunity for survival from the rushing waters. These are individuals who understand the necessity of contingency planning. When an emergency strikes it is too late to “wish” I had considered this possibility before! They knew what to do because they had previously been taught to analyze potential situations like this and had mentally rehearsed how to respond this kind of a crisis. When the emergency occurred, they were almost able to respond instinctively and effectively. We too need to think and plan ahead for contingency situations. To ask the question “what if” is not intended to make one paranoid or over anxious, but to consider the possibilities that exist. Sometimes these possibilities are unpleasant but a leader knows the importance of at least mentally rehearsing plan “B” or “C” ahead of time in case plan “A” backfires.

Workers who escaped the mine inform those working on top that the tragedy has occurred. Without hesitation, it is decided that an airshaft pipe must immediately be sunk into the mine to provide fresh and warm compressed air. There is serious concern about hypothermia setting in since the mine and water temperatures are in the 55-degree range. It will also help stabilize an air bubble in the mine keeping the waters at bay from engulfing the miners. No one knows exactly where they are! However, the other miners who escaped know where the trapped miners were working. These miners who escaped offer valuable input on where they might be located.

Leadership Lesson: This is a time for immediate decision-making skills. The issue is life or death and there is no time to debate the merits of an airshaft. Remember that the most effective type of leadership in emergency situations is autocratic leadership by an individual who knows what to do and has the courage to demand it. There is no time for committee meetings, consensus building or impact studies. The most important decision of the entire rescue is made right here to get warm compressed air to the miners ASAP! The problem with many individuals is that they are autocratic in all situations, including non-emergency situations. By doing this they fail to use the needed talent and experience of others in making daily routine decisions. By always having an autocratic demeanor they alienate other highly talented people and make some big mistakes because they don’t listen to others well. Do you remember the example of the former Mayor of New York City, Rudy Guiliani? Before the tragic events of 9/11 he was harshly criticized for his overbearing leadership in guiding the city. However, during and after the events of 9/11, his autocratic style was exactly what was needed during a time of extreme emergency and urgent decision-making needs. There is a difference between the rare emergency response needed in times of crisis and the most effective response in typical situations. Want to be a highly effective leader? Know the difference!

11:30 PM

Bob Long has just gone to bed. He gets a phone call about the disaster. Bob is an engineer for CMI engineering in Somerset, PA. Bob has $60,000 worth of military grade high-tech surveying equipment in the back of his Chevy Blazer. He is told, “We need your GPS stuff down here right now!” It is Bob who will decide exactly where this 6” airshaft will be located. Bob uses his laptop computer and a sophisticated Global Positioning System to communicate with a satellite and determine the coordinates of the mine location. At 1:15 AM on Thursday morning, Bob drives a stake into the ground at the precise spot they will drill. It is believed to be directly over the area of the mine where the trapped miners would have gathered together. It is in a farm field right off an access road near the highway. However, an error of a few feet either way might miss the tunnel pocket entirely. Since it takes hours to drill a 6”diameter hole 240 feet into the earth, they don’t have the time to poke around until they find the right spot. The drilling begins with not only the 6” airshaft, but with other shafts intended to pump water out of the mine and lower the water level. Rescuers have requested a special 30” diameter drill to be sent from West Virginia to drill a rescue shaft.

Leadership Lesson: Bob Long is a real hero. He has the training, skills and tools needed to get the job done right the first time! But he doesn’t act alone. First he must find out from others where they truly believe the trapped miners have taken refuge. He must use all the skills he possesses to set up the equipment correctly, take the right measurements, enter the correct input on his laptop computer, double check his measurements and analyze the results. Then he must decide, and accept the responsibility for his final decision. This is not the time to wish he had taken that “other” class last year or bought the new laptop a month ago. It is a time to focus, use all the skills at your present disposal, and get the job done. He does his job well, drives in the stake where the digging is to begin and totally accepts the pressure this task has required. Too many individuals suffer from analysis paralysis and become ineffective because they won’t make the difficult decisions. They will often find 100 reasons why they can’t. Effective leadership requires using all the tools presently at your disposal, making the decision and accepting responsibility for it. For more information on “analysis paralysis” read our weLEAD March 2002 Tip of the Month located here!

Thursday, July 25th


After a few hours of drilling, the 6” airshaft is dug and the pipe is sunk into the ground. The miners are reached and are in the location where they were expected to be! The shaft begins pumping warm compressed air into the ground. The miners tap on the shaft to let the rescuers know they are still alive. The taps continue until about noon. But with so much drilling going on it is very hard to hear them.

Leadership Lesson: The miners communicated back to the rescuers that they were alive and appreciated the effort to help them. They banged on the pipe and on the ceiling to communicate they were still alive and in need of rescue. Great leaders seek and desire communication from others. Remember that communication is a two-way street and it is far more than simply the expression of words. Communication is also expressed in our gestures, facial features, personal demeanor and how we react to events. Yet, the most important words a leader can give to someone who is struggling on the job, at school or at home is “I care, and I am here to help.”


A 30-inch-diameter drill arrives from West Virginia to drill a shaft wide enough to drop a rescue cage and pull the miners to the surface. Drilling begins in the evening and is expected to last 18 hours to reach miners if all goes well.

Friday, July 26

1:00 AM

Unfortunately, all does not go well! After drilling down only 100 feet the bit on the giant drill breaks while drilling through hard dense rock. This temporarily halts all digging efforts. This is a discouraging blow to rescue efforts. Workers attempt to remove the bit with a tool that was supposed to grab it and twist it loose, but the shank of the bit was stripped and it wouldn’t budge. It would end up taking 14½ hours simply to get the broken bit out of the hole.

10:30 AM

Drilling begins on a second rescue shaft while workers try to get the broken drill bit out of first hole.

Leadership Lesson: Life is full of disappointments. Sometimes the best efforts and finest motives of leaders still must confront large problems. But leaders don’t give up or quit. They reach deep down to solve difficult problems and overcome obstacles. Don’t ever forget the classic short commencement speech given by Winston Churchill where he powerfully told a graduating class only a few short words that included…never give up! Leaders also step out of the box and look for creative solutions to problems. In this case, if the first rescue shaft is halted, start another one. As it turned out, it is now believed by some observers that this may have been a blessing in disguise. It is possible that if the 30” drill-bit had not broken, and the miners had been reached this early, it may have created suction or flooding of the mine pocket because not enough water had yet been pumped out! Leadership requires imagination and flexibility when plan “A” is often thwarted.

12 PM

U.S. Navy personnel arrive with hyperbaric pressure chambers in case rescued miners need decompression to avoid the bends. It is also later planned to have 9 EMS vehicles ready to drive the miners for medical care and 9 helicopters ready to fly them to medical facilities if necessary.

Saturday, July 27


While the drilling continues, crews begin reviewing and practicing underground rescue procedures they’ll perform if the trapped miners are found alive.

Leadership Lesson: Notice the advance planning and strategy. People are not simply standing around and wringing their hands. Leaders are thinking one, two, and three steps ahead! What if the EMS vehicles are too far away from the right medical facility? We will use helicopters. What if the miners have the bends? We will have hyperbaric chambers on site. What if we find the miners are in “such and such” condition or situation? We will have rescue crews practicing procedures beforehand for most any contingency. The same holds true for any leader. We must think one, two, three steps ahead of where we are right now. How do we do this? It is easy if we have a vision. The vision in this mining crisis was to bring the miners out alive. This vision naturally led to a number of questions that begged for real solutions. The same is true for us and if you struggle to think or plan ahead it is probably because you really don’t have a well-defined vision for yourself or your organization.

1:30 PM

After contact with family members, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker tells the media that the original first escape shaft has been drilled to a depth of 214 feet. This is just 23 feet from where the miners were thought to be located. Also by this time, shaft No. 2 was at a depth of about 190 feet.

10:16 PM

The drill breaks into chamber pocket where the trapped miners are all huddled. The rescuers lower a phone and contact the miners.

11:32 PM

Gov. Mark Schweiker announces to the world that all nine miners are alive.

Leadership Lesson: There was great sensitivity throughout this event to keep family members constantly informed and notified about achievements before the media or general public was informed. Communication with family was a high priority. Today’s leaders are expected to be sensitive caring individuals who treat others with the respect and dignity they deserve. It is insensitive and selfish to seek or grab attention, or to be the first to “break the news” without considering the people who have the right to hear it first. Think how many recent corporate workers have discovered their fate on television news or in the newspaper rather than hearing it directly from the so-called leaders of the corporation. I am sure this rescue operation was far from perfect. I am also sure there were some strong egos demonstrated by some of the rescue team. But overall, this entire effort reflected a model of servant leadership as everything and everyone took a secondary role to keeping the miners alive, bringing them out of the mine and comforting their families during the long wait.

Sunday, July 28

1:00 AM

The rescue cage is lowered into the mine. Randy Fogle is the first miner pulled from the rescue shaft and the rest of the miners come in 10-15 minute intervals. The other miners in the order of their rescue include Harry “Blaine” Mayhugh, Thomas Foy, John Unger, John Phillippi, Ron Hileman, Dennis J. Hall, Robert Pugh Jr., and Mark Popernack. A statement by miner Harry Mayhugh during a press interview highlights my final leadership lesson. He was asked the following questions and gave the following replies…

Q: How were you guys holding on?

MAYHUGH: “Snuggling each other. Laying up against each other or sitting back to back to each other, anything to produce body heat, you know.“

Q: How — who was it that really kept you together?

MAYHUGH: “Everybody. Everybody had strong moments. But any certain time maybe one guy got down and then the rest pulled together, and then that guy would get back up and maybe someone else would feel a little weaker, but it was a team effort. That’s the only way it could have been.”

Leadership Lesson: Teamwork is what real leadership is all about. It took a large team of individuals to make this rescue successful. Each had their own unique skills and talents to offer. What if there had been no one like Bob Long and his GPS equipment available? What if there had been no one to operate the big 30” drill? What if there had been no one to drill the 6” airshaft? What if there had been no one to connect pumps, or electrical systems, or administrators, planners, or medical personnel? Teams wisely rely on the collective talent they possess to achieve great things. Great leaders know their own limitations and put together teams to create an unlimited synergy for success. The miners were a team. They worked together, struggled together and were willing to die together by even tying themselves up as a single team. The miners knew they were in this situation together. They huddled together for comfort, strength and encouragement. They relied on each other for emotional support. Individually they would become discouraged and weak. But, together they encouraged each other and were hopeful. The lesson here is the remarkable power of teamwork. Here is an undisputable fact… a team of determined individuals committed to a great cause is far more than the sum of its parts! This is a vital lesson for modern leaders to ponder. If you think about it, no single individual stood out as the leader during this entire crisis. Yes, the governor was given a prominent TV presence, but even he would admit that he was not the single leader. Why? They were a team…all leaders…all-pulling toward achieving the same vision and goal…each playing their vital part.

The mining accident in Somerset, PA concluded with a positive and happy ending. A nation watched, prayed and rejoiced to see the successful conclusion. The entire event was a fine example of leadership in many different dimensions. People know how to pull together and demonstrate leadership in tragic emergency situations. We have seen this recently in the World Trade Center disaster and in this mining rescue. Mankind has been occasionally able to do this for thousands of years in virtually every culture. Yes, many fine people seem to almost instinctively know how to do this in rare or catastrophic situations.

But a truly great people will learn how to make this kind of leadership part of their culture every day!

Why not start today?

Comments to: gthomas@32john.com

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About the author:

Greg has over 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the electrical distribution industry. Some of his positions have included being a National Sales Manager, National Marketing Manager and for the past 10 years that of Regional Sales Manager. He also has extensive experience in public speaking and has written articles for various publications. Greg has a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University where he presently serves as an adjunct faculty member teaching courses in management. Greg is also the president and founder of weLEAD Incorporated.

  • Quote of the Day

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

    — Proverbs 29:18