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Entombed forever

  • ABOVE: John Bova, left, son of entombed miner Louis Bova, unveils the Sheppton Mine Disaster historical marker on Saturday assisted by J. Ronnie Sando, believed to be the lone surviving rescuer. BELOW LEFT: Louis Bova, right, seen shortly before the…
    ABOVE: John Bova, left, son of entombed miner Louis Bova, unveils the Sheppton Mine Disaster historical marker on Saturday assisted by J. Ronnie Sando, believed to be the lone surviving rescuer. BELOW LEFT: Louis Bova, right, seen shortly before the disaster, along with wife Eva and father-in-law George Kase. DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS
Published August 29. 2015 09:00AM

t was a moment of powerful emotion.

John Bova, 52, the former miner who lost his father in an unspeakable tragedy, yanks on a blue sheath as a crowd of 200 erupts in applause.

The cloth drops, unveiling a pristine, blue-and-gold historical marker, ensuring that John's father, entombed miner Louis Bova, will never be forgotten.

A split-second later, John collapses to the ground in tears, completely surrendering to tension and perhaps exhaustion after years of shouldering an unforgiving load. Wife Bonnie Gold Bova rushes to his side.

"I couldn't even begin to imagine what he's gone through," says J. Ronnie Sando, 77, of Hazleton, who assisted John in unveiling the marker.

Sando is the lone surviving rescuer. He's a former employee of Pagnotti Enterprises, the firm that coordinated the spectacular rescue of two out of three miners trapped 320 feet below ground for 14 days in the Sheppton Mine Disaster.

Some call it a miracle.

But not John.

There was no miracle for him and his family.

He lost everything in the tragedy. His father was permanently entombed and his mother was never the same after the cave-in.

She was hospitalized and unable to care for John. So she sent him to live with a relative, an abusive uncle, where John's life was miserable. He was beaten at home and ridiculed at school, eventually dropping out.

No, that's not a miracle. It's pure hell.

And John has been living with it his entire life.

Minutes before the marker's unveiling, Sando stands at a microphone and utters bittersweet words on behalf of rescuers now deceased.

"Louis Bova, we're sorry. We're sorry we couldn't set you free."

But they just couldn't find him. He was there. But it was too dangerous to continue to look. Months later, the mine opening was sealed for eternity - with Bova still inside.

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.

Television news, an industry still in infancy, rushed crews to the site, as did newspapers, radio stations and magazines from all around the world. For the first 5-1/2 days, nobody knew if the men were dead or alive.

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 4 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet high.

Bova, however, was trapped in an adjacent chamber.

A daring two-week rescue brought Throne and Fellin to the surface, hoisted in parachute-type harnesses.

Bova couldn't be reached.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission issued a statement: "Rescue efforts 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."

But for John, significance is measured in a lifetime of hurt and anguish.

The resident of the mining settlement of Lower Shaft, a section of William Penn village near Shenandoah, says the tragedy destroyed his family.

It exacerbated his mother's medical woes. Eva Kase Bova passed away in November 2006. On Aug. 15, 2013, John returned to the cave-in site to spread her ashes so that his mother and father would be together again.

With all of that on his mind, John sat on a plastic pail on Saturday and chose to express himself through music.

He picked up a guitar and sang his original tune "Entombed," dedicated to his father.

In a way it was therapeutic, giving him a sense of peace. But he has new concerns. John fears a planned park and museum might capitalize on his sorrow and pain.

"I don't want to see any of this become commercialized," he said.

John, a father of two, was gracious to the politicians, clergy and dignitaries. But he made his feelings clear when he stepped up to the microphone. "My heroes are the people who work in the mines," he said. The event also featured a gun salute and the release of three white doves.

In a strange twist, one dove refused to leave. It hovered above John, nestling in trees near him.

"A sign from above," said attendees.

Words were spoken about those rescued.

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.

As for Louis Bova, he was 54 at the time of the cave-in. He survived the collapse and had communicated with the two others for days while trapped.

Nothing else is known. The only thing certain is the pain it left in his son's heart.

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

It inspired new rescue techniques being used today and led to mining reforms.

And all of that is good.

But the Bova family paid the price. For John, another person's miracle has been his private hell.

One man was left deep inside the shaft.

"This miracle is over," said John. "The tragedy is still with me. Was he crushed? Did he starve? Was he eaten? This is about my father."

In so many ways, the Sheppton Mine Disaster entombed John's spirit.

Despite everything, he remains strong.

Yet there comes a day when even the most stalwart among us can collapse.

There comes a moment when we're consumed by darkness, when pain stabs deep inside.

When that day comes, our world caves in.

And all we can do is cry.

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