When it began, the story was brutally ominous. Nine coal miners were trapped in an underground chamber in the hills of Pennsylvania. They could hold out for a few days, no more. Rescue equipment poured onto the scene, the best today's technology could produce.
But there was an overlay of oncoming tragedy in it. The stories of miners sealed in their caverns by water and gas recur throughout the world. The frantic rescue attempts usually fail. The grief of it, the futility, seemed to be recycling along with hope and resolve in Somerset, Pa.
And then late Saturday, nothing in the tumult and conflict of a day in the life of the earth could override the thanksgiving that swept America in the first exultant words from mud-smeared lips of one of the rescue workers:
"They're all down there. They're waiting to come up. There's nine of them."
There were. And today they are safe amid the high-five delirium of their families and the men with whom they worked.
It's probably true that after the first burst of exuberance the episode within a few weeks will ease into that distant public consciousness as one of those "good" stories that ended in human triumph. But what the millions who were held in suspense are not likely to forget is that unspoken and yet immensely powerful bond that brought them together in a community first of dread, then of hope, and then of gratitude.
It was not a war or an hour of national crisis that created that solidarity. It was the image of struggling men, fighting to stay alive somewhere 240 feet below the surface. It was the sight of their rescuers first demoralized by the breaking of a drill that delayed the rescue for hours and then boring back into the earth round the clock after learning there was a chance.
It was the realization through the homes and streets that in an exasperating time in America stock market turmoil, corporate crookedness, politicking, and shadows of the terror attacks here was an hour when, together, millions of people could feel the exhilaration of the transforming strength of hope.
They were together. It was almost as though a current of human will flowed through the country, reaching into those dark tunnels, joining the rescuers and strengthening the miners. These were ordinary people, the miners. When they emerged they struck no heroic poses, nor did the rescuers. The language of the miner can be blunt and deliberately unsentimental. One of them cracked up a rescuer moments after he was breathing clear air again.
"What took you guys so long?"
The long wait did create doubts among the miners. "I didn't think I was going to see my wife and kids again," Harry Mayhugh, one of the miners, said several hours after being rescued. But they encouraged each other when any one became downcast. "That's the only way it could have been," he said.
People who have stood at the minehead of rescue scenes like the one in Somerset understand their pragmatism. They also understand the anguish. Townspeople in the iron mining country of northern Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, have experienced it.
The village siren would sound, and if it wasn't noon or a fire, it was something in the mines. They would gather around the ministers, the mayor, and the mining superintendent. And wait and cry and pray. The ending was usually grievous. In Pennsylvania on Sunday, the ending was jubilant. And a man on the street in Minneapolis, opening his Sunday newspaper, was overcome with the same emotion that electrified mine workers in Somerset after the men's safe return.
"Wow. That's unbelievable."
What is believable in retrospect is the inspiration that flowed through the country, aroused by ordinary people facing death and yet doing it with an indomitability and a generosity that reflects the best there is in the human spirit.
They had warned fellow miners early in their ordeal. Their warning saved lives. They had vowed they would be together in facing whatever came. "Nine for nine," they said.
The men huddled together to stay warm in the mine which was partially flooded Wednesday after they inadvertently broke into a long-abandoned mine.
So they were heroes. And in seeing how they responded to the gravest hour of their lives, the millions of well-wishers whose spirits were in the cavern with them could see another truth very clearly. Here were ordinary people doing something extraordinary, not so much in being rescued but in how they reacted to crisis.
For a day, and probably longer, it made the stock-market palpitations seemed unimportant.