(click thumbnail)Grainy photo shows drilling rig with VM tape recorder resting on platform above bore hole and casing.
(click thumbnail)Aerial view of site with WMBT ‘news cruiser’ mobile unit at the center of the rescue operation. The WMBT unit remained for the duration of the rescue. The ABC feed originated here and connection was made to the audio equipment at this point.
(click thumbnail)Phil Margush fell into a deep sleep from exhaustion and could not be wakened by Louis H. Murray, WRTA chief executive (on left with pipe). The young engineer is removed to Locust Mountain Hospital in Shenandoah for observation and recovery.
A Familiar Problem
The problem that confronted Margush and the rescuers in 1963 continues to confound miners.
AP reported recently: “Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed an underground radio designed to locate trapped miners or help emergency crews communicate with each other during disasters.”
The weapons lab signed license agreements with a Canadian company, Vital Alert Technologies Inc., to market the technology. Vital Alert was founded to find a wireless solution to emergency communications after the Sept. 11 attacks. Mining companies asked it for help solving problems with underground communications. The technology, AP reported, “couples very low frequency radiation that can penetrate earth with digital technology like that used in cell phones and MP3 players to allow the radios to transmit voices and text messages. The technology also can help find radio users who are injured and unable to respond.”
For two weeks in August 1963, the world listened as rescuers tried to free three coal miners trapped 300 feet underground in Sheppton , Pa.
Two of the miners would be saved after a two-week underground ordeal; a third was never found. What most listeners didn’t know, and few people now recall, is that the audio lifeline that detected the miners was created by 19-year-old radio engineer Phil Margush, who crafted it out of spliced extension cords, an RCA “salt shaker” microphone and a Voice of Music 7-inch reel-to-reel tape recorder used as a monitor.
In 1963, Margush had just been hired as chief engineer and part-time newsman at WMBT(AM) in Shenandoah , Pa. “It was my first formal assignment as a broadcast engineer,” recalls Margush, who now owns Engineering Technical Services in Quakertown.
“WMBT was a 250-watt daytimer that had just gone on the air six months before, serving the anthracite coal mining region of eastern Pennsylvania . The station, in a newly constructed rectangular building, studios and transmitter, was situated atop Locust Mountain , just 100 feet from its quarter-wave antenna.”
Initially, the mine cave-in story only warranted a few lines on the AP wire. As a result, the story might not have even caught the station’s attention — and the miners might never have been saved — had WMBT newsman Russ Trunzo not become interested in visiting the site.
“So mid-afternoon, when the broadcast schedule permitted, we ‘borrowed’ the station’s one and only tape recorder and the RCA salt shaker microphone, loading everything into my VW panel truck, and off we went to find a little town called Sheppton,” Margush said. “Russ, who later saw his career at 1010 WINS, had hoped to get some interviews for the next day’s news and to return the tape recorder without its absence having been noticed.
“However, things didn’t work out that way.”
300 feet down
The rescue scene that Margush and Trunzo found was manned by retired miners from around Sheppton and representatives of the state and U.S. Bureau of Mines.
“The debris near the entrance of the collapsed mine was so severe that there was no way a rescue team could be sent in that way,” Margush said. “According to Russ Trunzo, it was the brother of one of the trapped miners who first suggested the idea of drilling a bore hole down to the miners, in order to locate them and eventually lift them out.”
The idea caught on and an exploratory attempt was made using an 8-inch drill. According to Margush, “There was no certainty that any contact could be made. Maps and diagrams were consulted and experienced miners gave their input; but everything was highly speculative. The rig operator was an expert; nevertheless everyone said this was a long shot at best.”
The drilling continued into the night, piercing through the rock beneath. Finally the drill broke through into an apparent cavity 300 feet down. Even so, the rescuers had no idea if they’d hit the mine. And if they had, were three trapped miners — 28-year-old David Thorne, 58-year-old David Fellin and 42-year-old Louis Bova — nearby?
To find out, the rescuers lowered a World War II-vintage, self-powered field telephone down the hole. Some thought they could hear water flowing but Margush was doubtful that anything could be heard with such a device of such low sensitivity.
It was at that point that Margush suggested the VM tape recorder hookup to his colleague Trunzo. The WMBT newsman took the idea to the rescue supervisor, who immediately gave approval.
“The VM recorder had a lot of sensitivity in its microphone preamp,” Margush says. “It occurred to me that if we could drop our RCA salt shaker down into the hole and connect it to the VM, we might be able to hear what was going on.”
The problem with this revelation was cable: Margush didn’t have 300 feet of microphone wire on his truck.
“We enlisted volunteers, who went out to the town of Sheppton and surrounds, borrowing any electrical cords they could find; and we spliced them together with borrowed friction tape,” he said. “Then we carefully lowered the salt shaker mic down the hole and listened.”
Echoes in the dark
At first, all that followed back to the VM’s monitor speaker were the distinctive sounds of dripping water and the prominent echoes of the rescuers above calling down the bore hole. “Then someone said, ‘I think I hear voices.’ Sure enough, it seemed that we could hear men in the background carrying on a conversation, unaware that we were listening in.”
The rescuers repeatedly called the names of the trapped miners, shouting into the casing. Finally a response from came back, loud and clear.
“The early conversations were very mysterious-feeling, yet very optimistic and happy,” Margush recalls. “Within half an hour of lowering the microphone, they knew about the rescue that was about to talk place.”
Soon after, an electric cord and light were lowered to the miners, again made up of spliced electrical cables. A 5-inch loudspeaker salvaged from a radio was lowered down to make it easier for the miners to hear the surface, but it failed after a while and conversation resumed using the former method of yelling into the bore hole.
It would take two long weeks for rescuers to drill a larger, 17.5-inch bore hole to Fellin and Throne. Bova was never found.
For the first days of the operation, Margush stood vigil around the clock at his VM recorder. Eventually, after 36 hours without sleep, he collapsed. “Apparently I fell into a deep sleep and they couldn’t wake me,” he says. “When they tried to, I’m told, I shook them off. Apparently I even slugged a state trooper!”
After a short stay in hospital, Margush returned to the Sheppton Mine site, resuming his post at the VM machine. By this point, the audio from WMBT’s salt shaker was being relayed over the ABC radio network, and TV crews from the three major networks were turning up as well.
By the time the miners were hauled up from the depths, the Sheppton Mine Rescue had become an international story. Not surprisingly, young Margush was hailed as a hero and lionized by the media. He has preserved some of the newspaper clippings at http://www.margush.com/philip/wmbt0000.htm.
Ironically, it was this experience that persuaded Phil Margush to leave radio and strike out into other areas of electronics engineering. “When you experience such a gigantic event early in your career, everything afterwards seems like an anti-climax,” he said. “Eventually, I got tired of the mundane life of a small-town broadcast engineer, and ventured out on my own to find a more active and challenging occupation.”
Four decades later, Phil Margush is approaching retirement. Fellin and Throne have since died.
As for WMBT — the station with the jingle that sang, “It must be! It has to be! With that big sound it’s gotta be: double-U eM Bee Teeeeeeh!” — it went dark in March 2003, a victim of the FM onslaught that has silenced so many AM voices.
Still, the tale of the Sheppton Mine Rescue radio cave-in lives on, a quintessential radio story: Small-town engineer combines bare bones broadcast equipment with MacGyver-esque wiring to tell a gripping story to a waiting world.