TAYLOR, Pa. -- Survivor Myron Thomas recalls it 'sounded like two fast freight trains passing in a tunnel.'
Twenty-three years ago Friday, the swollen, ice-clogged Susquehanna River burst through a thin rock cover and surged into the River Slope of the Knox Coal Co. at Port Griffith, near Pittston in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Of the 81 miners underground that day, 34 scrambled to safety immediately. Another 35, including two dozen led by Thomas, were rescued within eight hours.
But 12 miners did not escape, and their bodies remain entombed in the dark and watery grave.
The temperature on Jan. 22, 1959, was an unseasonably warm 62 degrees, and the Susquehanna -- already bloated by a winter storm - swelled as melting snow turned to runoff.
Located about 500 feet from the Susquehanna, the River Slope mine entrance led to a catacomb that extended beneath the river and along both sides.
At 11:42 a.m., the 14 inches of rock and 12 feet of river bottom that held back the Susquehanna gave way under pressure, and icy water gushed into the mine.
Thomas, a section foreman, was eating lunch in his office a half-mile from the mine entrance when a motorman spread the word that everyone was to evacuate immediately.
'They didn't tell us the river was in,' said Thomas, now 66 and suffering from black lung as a result of 25 years in the mines. 'And thank God we didn't know because we didn't panic.
Thomas gathered together the miners in his section and headed for the regular outlet, only to be turned back by high waters.
Sticking to high ground, Thomas and 24 miners inched their way, sometimes through chest-deep water, toward an abandoned area of the mine where Thomas believed there would be an old outlet known as Eagle Shaft and safety.
'I kept repeating the Twenty-third Psalm,' said Thomas. 'The men thought I had gone batty and asked what I was doing. I said, 'I'm praying. How about you guys start praying, too.'
'The Twenty-third Psalm means a lot to me because I walked through the valley of the shadow of death ... I was ready to die. I was praying to die.'
Forging ahead of his group, Thomas stumbled into a water-filled hole and was preparing to turn back again when noticed a small trap door with 'To Eg Sh' scrawled above it. The writing, he said, had been there for at least 40 years.
'I grabbed hold of the handle and this old door just fell apart in my hand,' he said. 'That's when the wind started whistling past my ears.'
Thomas had found the way to the Eagle Shaft.
He called the miners forward. Some were reluctant to follow him, and at least one claimed he was leading them into a trap. 'I had to talk to them like children,' he said. 'I even had to slap a couple of them.'
The miners stooped through the trap door and then had to crawl 20 feet through a 10-inch space beneath a fallen rock to reach the shaft, Thomas said.
Cables were used to hoist the 25 miners the remaining 60 feet to the surface. Thomas was the last man to leave the mine.
The disaster led to many individual acts of heroism, some of which have been embellished over the years, Thomas said.
'To me, I wasn't a hero,' said Thomas. 'I was so scared.'