The families of the miners gathered in solemn knots outside the bathhouse at Kocher Coal Co.s Porter tunnel mine tonight as the sun sank below Blue Lick Mountain.
After three days of waiting, their eyes were heavy and red. The women in their cloth coats and the men in their denims kept to themselves, and said little, even to one another. "Theres so many questions we want to ask about why, why this happened to our men," said one woman whose husband was trapped in the mine.
A friend cut her off at that point. "We dont want to talk, he said. "It hurts too much."
Almost a mile inside the mountain a rescue team was slowly digging toward the only miner, Ronald Adley, 37, known to be alive in the disaster that has shocked this peaceful Dutch country valley, 40 miles northeast of Harrisburg.
Nothing has been heard from seven other men entombed in the mountain since Tuesday when a wave of water swept through the mine, shattering timber supports and driving mud and stone before it.
More than 100 men who work here escaped, three were seriously injured and two have been found dead.
John Shutack, a federal mine safety official, told the families at a somber briefing just before dusk that it will be at least midday Friday before the rescue team reaches Adley and finds out anything more about the other missing men.
Shutack told the miners' families just as he had told a press briefing, "We have not and will not give up our effort to find any of the men."
But this was bitter news to the families, some of whom had maintained round-the-clock vigils at the mine entrance for three days. They had hoped the rescue effort would proceed faster and they knew with each hour the chances of their men being alive diminished.
The faces of the coal miners' families resembled those at other mine disasters in Kentucky and West Virginia. But this anthracite mine and the area around it are in sharp contrast to those soft coal mines that so often have been the sites of tragedies caused by gas and dust explosions.
While miners in those areas live in grimy coal camps, bring a certain fatalism toward the job, and have old Anglo-Saxon or Slavic names, those here are Pennsylvania Dutch and live in well-painted homes scattered throughout the small towns near here. The men have names like Wetzel, Coch, Dietrick and Zimmerman, families who have lived in these hills for generations.
Adley, Shutack said, was alive and apparently well in a tiny alcove about 32 feet from the rescue team. They communicated with him through a 4-inch-diameter hole that had been drilled through the coal late Wednesday. The hole had been lined with plastic tubing.
Adley had asked that rescuers shoot a cup of whiskey down to him through the tubing over night, but instead he got a gray woolen blanket, a container of broth, a plastic jacket, a pouch of chewing tobacco and some orange juice.
During the day rescurers contacted him once every two hours and sent him a sausage sandwich, coffee and soft drinks. When reached about 2:45 p.m., Shutack said Adley told the rescurers, "I'll take some coffee and more eats."
"He repeats he sees nothing and knows nothing about any of the other miners," he added.
Rescue workers moved toward Adley at a rate of 1 1/2 feet an hour. Much of the work was done by rescuers working in two-man teams with picks. First, they would drill holes into the hard coal surface four inches in diameter, then they would chip around it, hauling away the debris from the coal face.
Scores of reporters are gathered outside the mineshaft with television cameras, creating almost a carnival atmosphere. One young man, who danced briefly in front of the cameras during the day, was arrested in late afternoon when he streaked naked down state highway 209 about 300 yards from the mine entrance.
The families appeared to resent the outsiders and withdrew to themselves. "If people here are any different from those elsewhere, it is that they are very family-oriented, not only in their immediate families, but their extended families as well," said the Rev. Dennis Laskey, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in nearby Williamstown, one of a dozen clergymen who are staying at the mine site day and night.
"They see this as a very personal family time, a vigil that must be undergone," he added. "The press is something very alien to their experience, something they watch on television but don't connect with."
The tragedy at the Porter tunnel mine stunned the whole area. It is the largest remaining underground mine in the area, the heart of the once prosperous anthractie coal fields, and has a reputation as a "safe mine."
Walter J. Vicinell, Pennsylvania commissioner of deep mine safety, said his men had inspected the operation six times in the past year and "found nothing to cite."
"Since 1968 when the company started operations, it has never had a fatal accident here," he said. The Kocher Coal Co. had been repeatedly warned to drill holes to test the water-filled abandoned mine shafts which honeycomb this area. The company had done so, he said.