Robert Pugh says he doesn't like coming back to the area of Pennsylvania that still gives him "goosebumps" 15 years after he and eight other miners were rescued after spending more than three days trapped in a flooded mine.
But he made an exception over the weekend and returned to the Quecreek Mine site for the first time in a decade to see fellow miners and community members — and especially to thank those who had a role in saving his life.
"I want to see some people who rescued me, a lot of people who prayed for me and guys I haven't seen for a long time," he said.
Miners broke through stone into the uncharted mine shaft on the night of July 24, 2002, releasing millions of gallons of water and trapping them more than 200 feet below the surface. Crews drilled a small shaft and lowered a small metal capsule, bringing them up one by one until the last was lifted to safety early on the morning of July 28.
Pugh was among four of the nine rescued miners who spoke with reporters Saturday during a 15th anniversary community celebration.
"Well, it's 15 years I've been alive. I like that," Pugh said. "I mean, we all should have been dead down there."
Fellow miner Thomas "Tucker" Foy returns every year for the celebration to thank the rescuers and volunteers. He said he doesn't particularly like hearing the rescue story because it "brings back too many memories."
But, he said, there isn't a day that he doesn't think about it. "You never forget it," he said.
Pugh and John Unger talked about their emotions when facing death in the flooded mine, especially when they wrote letters to loved ones and sealed them in a container.
"The lowest point was when we wrote farewell notes to our families," Unger said. "We were getting ready to die."
Hope was kept alive by the muffled sound of the drill pounding and the faint clang of hammers on a pipe, but when the first drill broke, there was 18 hours of agonizing silence.
"You have a tendency to think to yourself, 'They may have given up.' It was wrong to think that way, but that's how I felt," miner Dennis Hall said.
More than 10,000 people a year visit the rescue site, including tourists who have come from as far as Belgium, Italy and Australia, according to Bill Arnold, executive director of the nonprofit Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation.
"People want this positive outlook. People want to know that when we pull together as Americans — as humans — for a common goal that we can achieve miraculous things," Arnold said. "I think people long for something positive and encouraging in their lives."
After more than three decades in dark mines, Pugh said he now loves mornings and daylight, and he's grateful for what he called his second chance.
"I just think people ought to believe in miracles. I never believed in miracles until I was one," he said.