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A miracle and a tragedy

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS John Bova steps toward his father's entombment site to scatter the ashes of his deceased mother. The moving moment took place on Aug. 15, 2013, 50 years following the Sheppton Mine Disaster.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS John Bova steps toward his father's entombment site to scatter the ashes of his deceased mother. The moving moment took place on Aug. 15, 2013, 50 years following the Sheppton Mine Disaster.
Published March 12. 2014 05:01PM

The state will erect a marker to designate the significance of a famous Schuylkill County mine cave-in and what many refer to as a miracle and a tragedy.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg, announced authorization for a historical marker at the Sheppton entombment site of Louis Bova, one of 21 new markers to be placed in the commonwealth.

The PHMC statement focused on the rescue: "Rescue efforts as a result of a mine cave-in utilized, for the first time, a borehole technique that has become ubiquitous worldwide for similar mine disasters. The same technique was used at Quecreek and Chile in recent decades. The event prompted revisions to state mining regulations and to the federal Coal Mine Safety Act."

The marker will be placed near Bova's tombstone. The exact wording of the marker is yet to be determined.

Worldwide attention

It was Aug. 13, 1963, when a cave-in at Fellin Coal Co., between Sheppton and Oneida, trapped three workers at the bottom of a mine. The men were caught inside a tiny chamber about 330 feet underground.

Television news, an industry still in infancy, rushed crews to the site, as did newspapers, radio stations and magazines from around the world. The tiny town of Sheppton turned into "Media City" for weeks.

For the first five and a half days, the world watched and wondered, with nobody knowing for certain if the men were dead or alive.

As it happened, two were trapped together, huddled against each other to stay warm. Henry Throne, 28, and David Fellin, 58, sat and shivered in total darkness, sharing a damp, cold chamber estimated at 6 feet long, 6 feet wide and almost 6 feet high on the "high" side of the angled cubicle.

Bova, however, was trapped in an adjacent chamber.

Drilling bore holes eventually was the solution. An oversized drill bit, large enough to carve a hole for a man to fit through, reportedly was supplied by well-known millionaire Howard Hughes, of Hughes Tool Co.

A dramatic, daring two-week rescue brought Throne and Fellin to the surface.

Attempts to reach Bova, however, were unsuccessful.

Bova's son John, 51, of the settlement of Lower Shaft, a section of William Penn Village, said last August that the tragedy affected his entire life.

He was 8 months old when the cave-in took place, and he never had an opportunity to know his father.

At one point, while working a bootleg mine, the younger Bova descended deep inside the earth, same as his father. It gave him a feeling of peace, he said.

"I felt close to him."

Bova said he lived with the stigma of the mine disaster for years but learned to cope.

"I came to grips with it because I can't change it."

The tragedy, he said, tore apart the family, exacerbating his mother's medical woes, and prompting a stormy childhood for Bova, who dropped out of school.

His mother was in and out of hospitals after the traumatic experience of losing her husband.

"My mom was sickly all her life," he said, adding that his mother rarely spoke of the tragedy.

"She was quiet. I guess it was her way of letting it go."

In tribute

Over the years, Bova had his body tattooed with images that pay homage to his father.

One tattoo across his back reads: Never Seen, Never Forgotten.

His mother, Eva Kase Bova, passed away in November 2006.

On Aug. 15, 2013, Bova returned to the site to spread her ashes so that his mother and father would be together again. The event was part of a formal ceremony attended by relatives, local dignitaries and church officials.

"I wanted to do it long ago but the ground wasn't blessed," he said.

After the passing of 50 years, Bova felt it was time to heal.

As for the survivors, Henry Throne lived 35 more years. He died in May 1998 at age 63.

David Fellin lived 27 years after the rescue. He passed away in 1990 at age 84.

The mine entrance, a sharp vertical slope, is gone. The opening was permanently sealed and the area landscaped.

The mine head is no longer visible. However, three original bore holes remain, each about six inches in diameter.

The area is located 17 miles northwest of Tamaqua and the mine site is about one-quarter mile from the nearest paved road. It's now part of a larger parcel owned by Sheppton Hunting Club.

However, according to court records, three acres of land over the former Fellin Coal Company mine "was turned over to Eva Bova of Shenandoah, widow of deceased miner Louis Bova," on Sept. 9, 1964. The provision assures the family permanent access.

Those who remember the event describe a roller coaster of emotions, with tears of joy blended with heartbreak.

The Sheppton Mine Disaster remains one of the most dramatic stories in the history of anthracite mining.

But the important thing, Bova said, is to always acknowledge it.

"I don't want people to forget."

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