Diocesan Natives Relied on Faith and Prayer in the Rescue of Quecreek Miners 20 Years Ago

July 22, 2022 – Greensburg, PA

Melissa Williams Brown
Contributing Writer

This weekend marks 20 years since three Catholic men with deep-seeded roots in the Diocese of Greensburg, spearheaded the successful rescue of nine coal miners trapped for 77 hours at Quecreek Mine in Somerset County. They find it hard to believe 20 years have passed. It’s as if it happened yesterday.

Joseph Sbaffoni, retired director of Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, still believes a higher power had a hand in bringing the trapped miners to safety.

“The Quecreek rescue was the highlight of my career. I put the rescue in the hands of the Lord. Few thought they would be alive. It brings back a lot of memories. There’s no question that the good Lord played a part in a successful rescue,” said Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni is a former parishioner of SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish in Fairchance and was director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mine Safety from 2003 until 2015 until he retired. He is a consultant for JAS Mine Consulting LLC and provides professional services to mining and related industries. Hailing from a family of miners, he has more than 50 years of mining experience. His expertise is in mine rescue.

Sbaffoni now Iives at Treasure Lake near Dubois. He is an active parishioner of St. Bernard Parish, Falls Creek. He belongs to the Knights of Columbus in Dubois, and the Holy Name Society at St. Bernard’s. When he lived in Fayette County, he was on the Catholic Charities Board of Directors. He is still active in mining organizations. He is also president of the Property Owners Association at Treasure Lake and says he’s busier than he’s ever been.

He cannot help but talk about that Sunday morning on July 28, 2002. As the world watched, former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker proclaimed four important words that Sbaffoni was waiting to hear: “All Nine Are Alive.” News that they were trapped came four days earlier on July 24.

Sbaffoni, not one to seek the limelight, shied away from what Schweiker called the “Sbaffoni technique.” 

Sbaffoni is a man of his word and told Schweiker he would get the men out alive. Everything that had to happen happened during those long tumultuous days. “God was with the miners and He guided us. I kept praying,” said Sbaffoni.

Sbaffoni told Schweiker he had a plan to pump a lot of water and drill a rescue hole to free the miners.

Others who were part of the rescue mission have become like family to Sbaffoni. He is on the board of the Quecreek Mine Foundation and looks forward to attending the anniversary annually to meet with fellow rescuers. He went to Jennerstown recently to meet with some of the miners and Schweiker. The two men have remained close friends.

Sbaffoni and his wife, Gloria, have two daughters and two granddaughters. He will be back at Quecreek for memorial on the 20th anniversary. Many out of state visitors travel to Quecreek, which is a few miles from the 9/11 Flight 93 crash site that occurred 10 months prior.

Like Sbaffoni, John Urosek knew God was their guiding force.

Urosek, a lifelong parishioner of Immaculate Conception Parish in Connellsville, cannot help but get emotional when he talks about what he calls the “miracle at Quecreek.” He was 45 years old. His daughter Rachel was a senior and oldest son Christopher was a sophomore, both at Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Connellsville. His youngest child, Patrick, was a 9-year-old student at Conn-Area Catholic School in Connellsville. Urosek is now a proud grandfather. Patrick and his wife Ashley have a 1-year-old daughter, Harper; Christopher and his wife Amanda have a 4-year-old son, Milo. Urosek said he and his wife, Claudia, have been married for “43 great years.”

At the time of the rescue, Urosek was chief of the ventilation division of Mine Safety and Health Administration. He now has a consulting business, John Urosek Mine Consulting, LLC. He travels all over the United States and to multiple countries to undertake mining investigations.

He provides expertise in mine fires, mine explosions and mine emergencies, mine emergency preparedness ventilation and mine gasses..

Looking back, he always had hope that all nine miners were alive.

“The more time passed, the greater the odds. I thought if everyone did not do what they were supposed to, they wouldn’t make it out alive. Looking back, we’ve never had a miracle quite like that,” said Urosek.

When Urosek arrived at his Connellsville home after four long sleepless days and nights, he was greeted with a “Nine for Nine” sign in his front yard. A similar sign was on the Somerset McDonald’s marquis, not far from Quecreek. He gets choked up talking about it.

Urosek is often asked about the rescue and gives talks about it. He returns to Quecreek annually and was at Jennerstown Speedway on July 16 to meet with some of the Quecreek miners and Schweiker when they were honored. Urosek will be back at Quecreek for the anniversary to reminisce with fellow rescuers and families.

Urosek still remembers the steep bank that he and rescue workers sat on when the miners were lifted out of the mine. It is a moment he will never forget.

He remembers clearly when the miners pounded on metal pipe nine times to indicate they were all alive. But the water was still rising. He thought they were going to lose them. The hole that was drilled was like a balloon. If it were to burst, all the water would rush in.

“It was special for everyone, simply because you were part of this miracle.”

Urosek did go underground a year after the accident to the area where the miners were rescued.

“It really hits you. Everything had to work and it did.”

Urosek travels all over the country as a mining consultant. He has been to the Midwest to investigate fires, and he will soon go to Christchurch in New Zealand. An explosion occurred in New Zealand in 2010 and 29 miners were killed. In 2018, unsuccessful attempts were made to reenter the mine to recover the victims. Urosek will visit Christchurch to investigate what went wrong.

He still becomes emotional when he talks about the Quecreek rescue.

“It was a miracle that all miners survived.”

Urosek’s boss, Ed Miller, who at the time held the position of chief of the Pittsburgh Safety and Health Technology Center for MSHA, told Urosek to go to Quecreek to see what he could do Miller is a parishioner of St. Barbara (the patron saint of miners) Parish in Harrison City. He was also on site at Quecreek to spearhead the rescue. The men had worked together most of their careers and share a strong Catholic faith.

Urosek recently went through old newspapers from July 2002. The clippings brought it all back.

He was recognized at a Geibel football game for his part in the rescue and was inducted into the Connellsville Area School District Falcon Foundation Hall of Fame in 2011. He was also inducted into the Coal Mine Rescue Hall of Fame in 2015, received the Distinguished Career Service Award from MSHA in 2017 and recognized for his career accomplishments with the prestigious Donald S. Kingery Award from the Pittsburgh Coal Mining Institute of America.

“It’s the greatest team effort I’ve ever been involved in. People who didn’t know each other worked together well. Not too many people realize what a true miracle this was. You just shake your head, even 20 years later.”



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