Hollywood didn’t even try to script a better ending to this story.
And what a story it was: Nine western Pennsylvania coal miners had become trapped in a flooded mine hundreds of feet underground, leading to a valiant round-the-clock rescue effort broadcast around the country.
Were they alive? Were they dead? For 77 hours in late July, no one knew.
And then came the perfect finale: All nine hoisted up to safety — alive.
The miners not only lived to tell the tale, they got paid for it. Their ordeal was quickly turned into a feel-good book and ABC television movie.
The Quecreek mine accident was one of the top Pennsylvania stories of 2002, a year that also saw a gubernatorial election, a business scandal, a medical malpractice crisis and two high-profile murder trials.
Democrat Ed Rendell became the first Philadelphia candidate elected governor since 1914, easily defeating Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher. Rendell’s running mate, former state treasurer Catherine Baker Knoll, also made a little history: She will be Pennsylvania’s first female lieutenant governor. They’ll tangle with a Legislature controlled by Republicans, who maintained their edge in the Senate and picked up seats in the House.
Rendell immediately went to work on the state’s medical malpractice crisis. Many doctors quit practicing or moved out of Pennsylvania, blaming high insurance premiums. In Scranton, dozens of surgeons stopped accepting new patients and threatened to halt surgeries after Jan. 1 unless the state brought them financial relief.
It was a so-so year for Pennsylvania prosecutors, who cleared two high-profile murder cases but fumbled on another one.
In York, two white men were convicted, and former Mayor Charlie Robertson was acquitted, in the shotgun slaying of a young black woman during race riots in 1969. The case had languished for decades before prosecutors, saying they had new information, reopened it in 1999. Six other white men pleaded guilty in the slaying of 27-year-old Lille Belle Allen, and a 10th man awaits trial.
In Philadelphia, Ira Einhorn was convicted of bludgeoning his girlfriend and stuffing her corpse in his closet a quarter-century ago. The one-time hippie had jumped bail on the eve of trial in 1981 and spent 17 years as a fugitive in Europe. Barring a successful appeal, he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. On the day of his conviction, prosecutor Lynne Abraham crowed: “Ira Einhorn and his Virgo moon are toast.”
But the DA, while victorious in the Einhorn case, was forced to acknowledge that police had arrested the wrong men in the worst mass murder in modern Philadelphia history. In July, Abraham dropped murder charges against four defendants in the so-called Lex Street Massacre that killed seven people in December 2000. Four months later, she brought charges against four new suspects. Authorities said a dispute over a car prompted the slayings.
Pennsylvanians read plenty of stories about children, or people who hurt children.
Child abductors made a terrible mark in Utah, California, Missouri and Oregon last summer, but in Philadelphia, 7-year-old Erica Pratt defied the odds and escaped her captors. Erica spent nearly 24 hours bound and blindfolded in the squalid basement of an empty building before she was able to gnaw through duct tape and break open a door to call for help. Police said the two kidnapping suspects mistakenly believed Erica’s family had come into money and intended to hold her for ransom.
Another case, this one in Berks County, also turned out well. An armed bus drove 13 religious-school students toward Washington, D.C., before turning himself in six hours after the start of the trip. The suspect, Otto Nuss, then 63, had been treated for psychiatric problems since the 1970s, but allegedly told friends he had stopped taking his medication. He pleaded innocent to kidnapping.
The child sex abuse scandal that began in Boston and spread to Roman Catholic dioceses across America also touched the Pennsylvania church. The state’s dioceses went back through their files and found dozens of priests who had sexually abused children. The offenders were stripped of their priestly duties, but church officials said they wouldn’t turn over the names of accused priests to civil authorities, angering some activists and laity.
In September, Philadelphia schoolchildren returned to class to take part in the nation’s biggest experiment in school privatization. The district — seized a year ago by Gov. Mark Schweiker — turned over dozens of poorly performing schools to outside managers.
Two Pennsylvania-based cable companies made headlines — one for all the wrong reasons.
Adelphia Communications Corp. of Coudersport, Pa., filed for bankruptcy protection on June 25, staggered by hidden debt, accounting problems and questionable deals by its founding family. In September, founder John J. Rigas, his sons and two other former executives were charged with stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from Adelphia, the nation’s sixth-largest cable television company.
But Comcast Corp. of Philadelphia was the cable company that could, completing its $29 billion acquisition of AT&T’s cable division to become the nation’s largest cable operator. Comcast started out four decades ago as a 1,200-subscriber cable TV system in Mississippi; now it has 22 million subscribers and 29 percent of the cable market.
In other business news:
— Hershey Foods put a scare into residents of Hershey, Pa., when the charitable trust that controls the candy company announced it wanted to sell. That provoked an outcry from politicians and residents alike, who feared plant closings and layoffs if a sale went through. In September, the Hershey Trust Co. backed down, saying a bid from Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. and a joint offer from Nestle and Cadbury were unsatisfactory.
— Bacteria found in a Montgomery County meat processing plant prompted the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride announced a nationwide recall of more than 27 million pounds of deli meat .
The biggest story of 2001 continued to make its presence felt in 2002. More than two dozen Pennsylvania residents were killed in the Sept. 11. terrorist attacks, including a passenger aboard United Flight 93. The one-year anniversary was a day of remembrance: Family members of the 40 victims of Flight 93 joined President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and thousands of others at a memorial at the crash site near Shanksville, Pa. Dozens of other places held moments of silence and candlelight vigils.
Hollywood didn’t even try to script a better ending to this story.