Sign dedicated in memory of Porter Tunnel miners
By Rebecca Zemencik, Managing Editor • email@example.com
PORTER TWP. – As she was watching the 2016 presidential candidates make their plea and speak of what they stood for, Beth Harman, of Valley View, was angered that some didn’t think anything about the coal industry. It was at that point that she knew now was the time to open old wounds and honor the memory of nine men who lost their lives in the Porter Tunnel mine disaster of 1977.
“When I heard that some of the candidates didn’t support the coal industry, it angered me,” said Harman. “Coal is our heritage and I have family members who gave their life while mining coal. My sons, Jeffrey and Nicholas never had the opportunity to meet their grandfather Morgan and I wanted them to know that coal was an important part of their heritage.”
“I knew we were coming up on the 40th anniversary and I felt that something should be done. I wasn’t emotionally ready to open up old wounds and I think that’s why nothing was done in the past. Who wants to remember something horrible that had happened? But I want future generations to remember what happened and to remember how dangerous coal mining was back then.”
Because of those feelings, Beth began planning and talking to people to have a sign erected at the entrance to the former Porter Tunnel. With the help of her family and friends, a sign was erected back in the fall and on Saturday, about 200 people gathered at the entrance to the former mine on Route 209, for the dedication of the sign.
The sign is is 3’x5’ made of aluminum with a wooden frame. The sign offers a history of the event:
On March 1, 1977, millions of gallons of water flooded the Big Lick Mountain Mine, after an abandoned water filled mine site was breached. At 11 a.m. a thud was heard. One minute later, a terrible wind came followed by a funnel shaped tornado of water. Three men were able to find their way out and were treated for their injuries. Ernest Morgan, John Morgan and Henry Fishburn. Ten men were still missing. One man, Ronald Adley, was able to be rescued one week later. Mine men lost their lives and were recovered in the days and weeks following the disaster.
It lists the names of the men who lost their lives and the dates they were found: March 2, Gary Lee Klinger, 19, Hegins; Philip Sabatino, 50, Hegins; March 6, Ralph Renninger, 40, Donaldson; Donald Shoffler, 41, Gordon; March 28, Ronald Herb, 32, Valley View; John Moyer, 44, Ashland and Dennis Morgan, 30, Valley View; March 29, Tim Grose, 19, Ashland and Mark Kroh, 48, Good Spring.
The sign is located along Route 209, between Tower City and Joliett, at the former entrance to the Porter Tunnel. The land is currently owned by Rausch Creek Land LP, Valley View.
The disaster occurred at the Kocher Coal Co. Porter Tunnel Mine at 11:50 a.m. Tuesday, March 1, 1977.
It was reported at the time that tons of impounded water flooded the West Skidmore South Dip conveyor gangway, which caused the death of nine miners.
Beth’s father, Dennis, was just 30 years old when he lost his life in the Porter Tunnel Mine. He was a husband to Barbara and the father to three children, Beth, Donnie and Cathy.
The morning of March 1 was the last time Beth saw her father alive. “I remember walking into the kitchen that morning and saying good morning to my dad who was standing and looking out the kitchen door window. Every morning he would stand and stare out the back window for a while.”
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” said Beth. “I was 11 years old and a student at Hegins-Hubley Elementary School. I remember coming home from school and my mom was sitting in the kitchen when she told us what happened. Mom said there was an accident and they were trying to find our dad, but they couldn’t find him.”
Beth said her mom, Barbara, went to the mine to wait for word on Dennis. Barbara’s father-in-law, Ernest Morgan was also employed at the mine.
“We kids were only brought over to the mine one time,” recalled Cathy Leitzel, Hegins, Beth’s sister. “I was only eight at the time, but I can remember spending a lot of time at Mem’s house while mom was at the mine waiting on word of dad. It was Pastor Grube, from Trinity Lutheran Church, that took us kids over to the mine. I can remember him saying, ‘now you see what is going on and where you mother is and what they are doing to try and rescue your dad. This is no place for kids and you will not be brought back to the mine.”
For 28 days those kids and Barbara had hope. “We were so hopeful that they would find dad alive and he would be rescued,” said Beth. “I can just remember being so very hopeful.”
Unfortunately, on March 28, Dennis Lee Morgan’s body was pulled from the mine.
One of the miners, Ronald Adley, Tower City, was trapped inside the mine for five days. Rescuers tunneled through a 50-foot wall of coal to free him.
“I was one of the miners who helped to bring Adley out of the mine,” said Bruce Klouser of Valley View, who attended the ceremony for the sign dedication. “I worked here for 15.5 years,” said Bruce.
When asked if he wasn’t afraid to go into the mine he said, “when you’re young you have no fear, we worked for a month to get the last guy out. The Red Cross was here and the Salvation Army provided meals and anything that anyone needed.”
“I can’t believe it took 40 years to get a sign, but I’m glad it’s here and we are honoring and remembering those who lost their lives.”
As people gathered Saturday morning for the sign dedication they clutched photos of their loved ones close to their heart as the tears and the memories flowed.
“No one really talked about it after it happened,” said Tammy Erdman, of Hegins, who’s grandfather Philip Sabatino, who was 50 years-old at the time also lost his life in the mine disaster.
“My Pap Sabatino died on my seventh birthday,” said Tammy. “Even though, my grandma, Pearl Sabatino’s husband lost his life, they still celebrated my birthday. I can remember sitting in my grandma’s living room with the family. I can even remember the gift she gave me, it was a pair of red apple earrings.”
Gail Koppenhaver, Philip’s daughter said she was driving down back street, when someone stopped her to tell her that her dad’s body had been recovered from the mine.
“We were told that my dad actually made it out alive but then went back in to try to help the others,” said Gail. “We were never sure if that information was true or not.”
Tammy believes it is true. “About 15 years ago I had a patient at the dentist’s office where I worked say to me, ‘I want to thank you, since I can’t thank your grandfather, if it wouldn’t have been for Philip Sabatino coming back in the mine, I wouldn’t be alive today.’
Tammy said for the life of her she can’t remember the patient’s name. “I was so overwhelmed with emotions I had to leave,” said Tammy. “We were told that before, but we never knew if it was true or not.”
(Correction: The Sabatino family said the patient at the dentist office said he was grateful for the knowledge and training provided to him by Philip Sabatino. It was the training that he received from him that saved him, not that Philip came back in and saved him. The family said Sabatino never came out of the mine and went back in.)
The Rev. Carl D. Shankweiler, opened the ceremony. He and his wife Cynthia were friends and classmates of Barbara and Dennis and Cindy played the piano at their wedding.
“Although I’m from Valley View, I wasn’t living in this area at that time,” said Shankweiler. “Forty years ago, I was down in Berks County. But we certainly knew what was taking place here at this tunnel. It was national news,” Shankweiler told those gathered Saturday.
“To lose a classmate is one thing. But the families involved, it was losing a father, a son, a brother, an uncle. It becomes much, much more personal. So for my friend, Barbara Herb, it was the loss of a husband. For her children, it was the loss of a father. For everyone who died there’s a similar story of family that was changed forever,” Shankweiler said.
Shankweiler offered prayers to all in attendance.
State Rep. Mike Tobash, R-125 read the names of each of the nine miners and invited their family members and loved ones to go stand by the sign or place flowers as their loved ones name was called.
Sate Senator David G. Argall, R-29 also attended the dedication. Both he and Tobash said they’re making an effort to have a state historical marker placed on the site.
“On March 13, I’m going to be in the House of Representatives and I’m going to offer a resolution,” said Tobash. “I invite you all to come. It’s going to be on the state record. Senator Argall and I are working on making sure we get a state marker that would be on the highway here so that people, forever, when they drive by this location understand the tragedy that happened here,” Tobash said.
“I further challenge all of us to commit on this day to seek the approval of the PA State Historical Commission to formally recognize this event as a historical event and seek an official PA State Historical Marker to mark it for eternity so that future generations always remember what happened here,” Tower City Mayor Dan Daub said in a proclamation recognizing the miners.
Other local dignitaries who attended the dedication included Schuylkill County Commissioner Gary Hess and William Schaeffer, a supervisor with Porter Township, who both presented proclamations.
Perry Pillar, on behalf of the Tremont Historical Society, said the following, “We may not have the same blood running through our veins, we may not have the same names, but we’re one family in the coal region. I want you to take that with you. Be proud of your heritage.”
Beth Harman offered the final closing words.
“I’m humbled by everyone’s presence here today,” said Beth. “It’s really hard to open old, deep wounds that we all kept hidden, but the time is now to remember and memorialize these men and talk about the men they were. They aren’t just names on a sign.”
She said the mine was filled in 10 years ago and ironically all that remains is a pipe with water running from it.
Beth thanked everyone who made the sign possible. Her nephew Dennis Felty, who was named after her father, of Felty Custom Graphics, Fort Ashby, West Virginia; Jeff and Nick Harman, Valley View; Katie Schroding, New Philadelphia; Jeff Harman Jr., Mountville, Lancaster County; and Mark and Clair Harman, Hegins.
A reception was held following the dedication at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Valley View, where family and friends were invited to share memories and photos.