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Sheppton Folks Recall Mine Disaster

Throne’s death finds Sheppton folks recall mine disaster vividly

Rescue put patch in international spotlight

BY MIKE WALLER
Staff Writer
[email protected] SHEPPTON — A quarter-mile down a windy, gravel path off Nuremburg Road near the village sits a headstone surrounded by a white, picket fence.

The headstone belongs to Louis J. Bova, whose body is estimated to be 300 feet below, buried in a mine collapse that placed this coal patch in the international spotlight for 14 days in 1963.

Thirty-five years after it happened, the memory is crystal clear in the minds of those who were witnesses. It was at the front of minds again this week as Henry Throne, the last of the two survivors, was buried.

Even without Throne’s death last Friday, George Motil, commander of Sheppton American Legion Post 616, would have led a 21-gun salute Monday at the gravesite as he does every Memorial Day.

The headstone, located near what used to be the mine’s shaft, is the only monument standing in tribute to Bova, Throne and the third man, David Fellin, who died in 1980.

Those are household names here.

Born in Hazleton and now living in Sheppton, Robert G. Gregory was working in Delaware at the time of the collapse, but happened to be visiting his late wife Hazel Bley’s hometown when the mine collapsed.

“The day of the disaster we were sitting in Farmer’s Bar” now the Coalcracker’s Bar at the corner of Third and Alter streets, he said. “We heard on the radio that they had been trapped and we went right over.”

The Fellin Coal Co. miners were 300 feet below the surface of the earth when the mine they were working in collapsed.

Fellin was 58 at the time and lived to age 74. Throne, then 28, died at 63. Bova’s body was never found; he was 42.

Gregory made it to the scene within an hour of the collapse, but he was not the first to arrive. There were already “quite a few people” up there trying to figure out a way to help the miners.

“I looked down the shaft and that was it,” said Gregory, who admits to being afraid of heights. “Looking straight down 90 feet into that shaft, I was scared. All we could do was stand and gawk like everyone else.”

In all, the miners were trapped for 14 days, 5« of which were spent in complete darkness.

The international media quickly latched onto the story. Three men, previously anonymous to the world, were suddenly on television in living rooms around the world including Gregory’s in Delaware, where he watched the rescue after returning from vacation.

“This place was a boom-town when it happened,” Gregory said.

Local restaurants, like the former Flaim’s (which was actually closed for the first week of the rescue efforts while the owners vacationed in Wildwood, N.J.), hotels and even kids, who would earn $50 to $100 per day to lead people to the top of the mine shaft, profited greatly from the sudden interest.

Motil knew all three men and would often hang out with them at Dado’s Bar on the corner of Pine and Shepp streets. He remembers Bova forever shooting darts. Fellin was a “good guy” and spent a lot of time on television after being rescued, Motil said. Throne was “a stogie guy.”

All three were described by area residents as mild-mannered men who had a number of friends in the area.

For the two weeks they spent trapped underground, locals were worried for their friends. The story of their saga, gripped not only the nation, but the world.

By 8 a.m., the three miners were fast at work. They had filled their first buggy of coal and sent the cart up the tracks to be dumped outside the mine. The buggy never made it back.

“That’s when the big rumble started. And all hell broke loose,” Throne later said to newspapers.

The ceiling collapsed, bringing down timbers, chunks of wood and coal. The three miners were effectively sealed off, in total darkness, from the rest of the world. Throne said at the time that the three were lucky not to be killed by the falling debris.

The collapse separated Throne and Fellin from Bova, who was on the other side of the tracks. After the power line to the overhead lights was damaged, Throne and Fellin lost contact with Bova.

After their helmet lights burned out and their matches failed, Throne and Fellin spent 5« days in complete darkness. In all, they were trapped the length of a football field under the surface for 14 days.

For the five days of darkness, Throne and Fellin spent their time crawling around looking for a way out. From time to time they had to try and bolster the slowly dropping ceiling with fallen timbers. To battle temperatures they estimated to be near 30 degrees, they slept embraced and warmed each other by breathing on each other’s necks and rubbing each other’s legs.

It was also during this time that the two experienced hallucinations. They reported seeing doors, houses and a miner with a headlamp. Each time they thought they saw something, the image would get smaller as they crawled toward it, Throne said.

Many of the hallucinations were described identically by both men, such as the “sighting” of Pope John XXIII, who had died on June 3 of that year 2« months before the mine collapsed.

The two kept looking for Bova. Fellin would later report making brief contact with Bova around Aug. 20, but officials doubted whether any contact was actually made, newspaper reports indicate. No communications were ever established with Bova from the surface.

On the sixth day of their ordeal, a microphone dropped down through a six-inch hole and they heard voices yelling their names.

“It was a miracle,” said Andrew Throne, Henry’s brother. “We were very anxious and scared wondering whether he’d ever come out, but we always thought there was a chance.”

The crowd on the scene when the drill broke through crowds were often at least 500 people, Gregory said erupted in applause, whistling and yelling.

For the next eight days, drilling proceeded slowly, but lights, food, drinks and supplies were lowered through the growing hole by rope.

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Aug. 27, rescue crews were able to bore through the debris to open up a 17«-inch hole wide enough to hoist the greased-up miners to safety.

The two were released from Hazleton State Hospital within days of the rescue.

The saga of Throne, Fellin and Bova is more than just local lore. In the early 1990s, the Discovery Channel showed “Coal Mine Rescue,” a feature on the event, as part of its “Spirit of Survival” series.

Beyond personal memories and regional legend, the accident did have one lasting legacy it virtually killed off the already dying local mining industry, Motil said.

“This used to be a big mining area,” he said. “But that was a big disaster.

A 6-inch borehole

A 6-inch borehole – the first such attempt in a mining rescue attempt anywhere in the world

From the Standard Speaker – Hazleton, PA, USA
By Ed Conrad
August 16, 2007

It was known as the Sheppton Mine Disaster of August 1963, when two anthracite miners – David Fellin, then 58, and Henry “Hank” Throne, 28 – were trapped and given up for dead, then dramatically rescued after being buried 14 days underground.

Boreholes were drilled into the depths of the mine near Sheppton in an attempt to contact the miners if indeed they were still alive.

In the case of Fellin and Throne, a borehole miraculously reached them and the news that two of them were still alive after five days underground sent shivers to people around the world.

The unfortunate part – not known during the initial contact – was that Lou Bova, 54, was not with Fellin and Throne.

All three had been some 330 feet below ground when the cave-in occurred and sought shelter in the chamber. However, Bova thought he saw a safer place and ran toward it just as the roof of the mine collapsed.

So he was not with Fellin and Throne, now both deceased, when the borehole reached them, and Bova’s body was never recovered.

The borehole was drilled at the insistence of Fellin’s brother, Joe, after attempts to rescue the miners had met with frustration for the first few days.

Rescue crews were unable to penetrate the shaft – the only entrance or exit to the mine – because of the threat of additional cave-ins as well as the presence of poisonous carbon dioxide.

When all hope seemed gone, Joe Fellin pleaded with officials of the local district of the United Mine Workers, based in Hazleton, that the buried miners might be located through a borehole.

The UMW convinced state mining officials to give it a try, and they reluctantly agreed.

The rest is mining history

A 6-inch borehole – the first such attempt in a mining rescue attempt anywhere in the world – miraculously penetrated the chamber where Fellin and Throne thought they were waiting to die.

It drilled through the roof of the cramped enclosure, where they had sought refuge after the cave-in on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 13.

“When the drill came through, it almost hit me on the head,” Fellin said years later.

Having been a miner at least 44 years before the cave-in, Fellin knew there was only one way into and out of the mine and tons and tons of rock, coal and dirt blocked it.

However, when the six-inch borehole reached Fellin and Throne, a much larger borehole – 17½ inches in diameter – was drilled right over it in an effort to possibly pull the miners to the surface.

People from all corners of the globe were intrigued by the fact that the men were still alive and watched in awe as the rescue operation continued with the drilling of the larger borehole.

It indeed was the biggest international story in the entire history of Hazleton or the Standard-Speaker to that time.

The Los Angeles Times published a front-page story bearing the banner headline, ”MINE MIRACLE.”

The dramatic rescue effort, which lasted more than a week, was front-page news in virtually every newspaper in the free world.

Reporters, columnists and photographers from far and wide – England, Japan and Germany, among many other countries – were dispatched to the mine site to cover the event.

As virtually all hope seemed lost, rescuers took a gamble.

It was decided, as a last-ditch effort to satisfy the families of the miners, to drill a 6-inch-wide borehole in an attempt to reach the miners.

The hole took much of Aug. 17 and all of Aug. 18 to drill, but around 11 p.m. on Aug. 18, a hole had been drilled to the proper depth.

And just before midnight, a light and a microphone were lowered into the earth in an effort to establish contact with one or more of the miners.

A member of the rescue crew cupped his mouth over the bore hole, got as close as he could to the ground and yelled: “Look for the light!”

He thought he had detected a voice, so he stood up and waved both arms, demanding total silence from the rescue workers and a crowd of onlookers.

Once again he got on all fours and again hollered, “Look for the light Look for the light!” Then cupped his ear over the borehole and listened for a sound from below.

Suddenly, he leaped to his feet and screamed “They’re alive! I hear them! They’re alive!”

Within minutes, the astounding news spread like wildfire around the world.

What followed was the patient drilling of larger boreholes, then the drilling of a 17½-inch borehole was drilled by equipment loaned by one of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes’ companies in Texas.

People worldwide waited for a happy ending – and it finally came in the wee hours of Tuesday, Aug. 27, 1963.

First Throne, then Fellin were pulled to the surface wearing parachute harnesses and football helmets.