The Drill Bit of Pope John
For some reason, fifty-five years ago the laws of reality briefly shattered in Northeastern Pennsylvania because a mine collapsed in the town of Sheppton.
This is, fascinatingly, undisputed by contemporaneous accounts, retrospective accounts, and any source even tangentially related to the matter. The New York Times and cable news covered the matter: even their matter-of-fact reporting is unable to sidestep the utter weirdness of the event.
The train of normalcy leaves the rails on August 13th, 1963. This is when the roof of the Sheppton mine collapses — the cause of the collapse is still unknown. The break occurs 300 feet in the ground; three miners hear rumbling immediately before seeing timbers and rock fall from the ceiling.
Two miners run towards what’s called a “monkey”, a side-hole designed to provide shelter in a collapse. The third is unable to make it and is separated from the others by a wall of falling debris. The monkey is about ten feet long and three feet wide; it has an irregular ceiling that is mostly set at six feet and it is closed off by the collapse. The two men inside the compartment are Davey Fellin and Henry “Hank” Throne. Throne has a fluorescent watch, so they have an idea of time. They can partially see the other man, Louis Bova, over the wall of debris.
The exact chronology of what happens next shifts from interview to interview, but the events are always the same and the undisputed first occurrence is a drop in temperature. The men can see their breath, but the base temperature in all mines always stays at a consistent 55 degrees. Both men agreed, independently, that the temperature went down. The two would spend the next several days huddling for warmth and drinking water from a small, stale reservoir in the back end of the monkey.
Sometime after the temperature drops, Throne attempts to light a small cigar he has in his pocket with three matches he has on his person. Each time he lights a match, it quickly dies out — the fire is not blown out, but the flame can just not sustain itself. Fellin saw this and independently confirmed that the event happened. A professor at Penn State was contacted by the local newspaper, the Hazelton Standard-Speaker, and stated that if a match was unable to sustain in the manner described, oxygen levels would be fatally low.
The inability of the fire to sustain indicates the presence of ‘blackdamp’: air too laden with monoxide and low-levels of oxygen to support life. Prolonged exposure to Blackdamp is fatal — the legendary Avondale Coilery disaster saw 108 men die from exposure, some during rescue efforts.
Shortly after the matches die, more debris falls, sectioning off the monkey further, and a wire is severed. The lights in the cave die; the two men now cannot contact or see Bova.
The chronology deteriorates at this point.
At some point, both men see a door appear: Throne recounts running towards it, and the door then disappearing as he closed on it. Either before or after this, another miner is seen walking through the monkey; there is a working light on his head. As the men look at him, he gradually gets smaller and disappears as the two men crawl towards him. Shared visions between the two men occur several more times: passing miners and houses that appear then disappear are seen several times during the next two days. Both men would later recount the visions in exact detail; their versions always matched.
The sporadic visions continue for four days. On the fifth day, a blue light, which Fellin described as being like “fireflies” beings to bounce off the walls of the cave. Slowly, the monkey is illuminated.
The two men see a third man standing behind one of the fallen boulders in the mine. He is looking at them while smiling with his arms crossed. Fellin, a devout Catholic, recognizes the man as the recently deceased Pope John XXIII; the pontiff is much younger than he was at the time of his death and was wearing the robes of a simple village priest. Fellin said nothing when he saw this, he stated in several interviews, because he did not want to parse the topic of religion and make Throne confused or angry.
Throne, a nominal episcopal who did not attend church, turned to the other miner, pointed at the rock and asked, “who’s that fella?” Almost immediately after the ordeal, Throne shown a picture of Pope John XXIII during a psychiatric evaluation. He enthusiastically identifies the deceased pontiff as the man who was in the cave with them.
As Pope John is standing there, another vision occurs — the cavern expands outward and is flooded by a bright blue light. Then, to quote Fellin directly:
“We walked maybe 30 or 40 feet and there was people, thousands of them. We walked further and Hank had a cigar, chewin’ it. We come to a crooked cross, and here there was a chariot and there’s a guy settin’ in there.” Hank says to me, he says, ‘Davey, ask him for a light.’ I had no desire to talk to these guys. Now in here where these chariots was there was all kinds of people doin’ all kinds of work. “On one side was people in agony. The people on the other side was not in agony. And among all these people I’m seein’ here, maybe one in every 10, there was one in there that light flowed from their body.” And to the left there was a big bubble. Oh maybe an 8-foot bubble. Transparent. You know what was in there? In that bubble was little angels dancing. I don’t know what it was now. I didn’t know then.”
The men then see two normal men — not miners, they specify — attend to a new door. It is blue and mounted on a golden staircase. The men open the door and Pope John walks out.
The miners advance further in the vision together — both recount Hank walking towards the golden staircase. Hank steps foot on it and the vision ends.
Davey says after this he feels a hand on his shoulder, and sees Louis Bova, who is offering to take him back home. He declines, and the men return to the darkness suddenly.
A number of days pass. Louis Bova is heard from: he tells the men that he sees them and is going to drop a light a few feet in front of them. They both hear this and begin calling to him; he doesn’t respond.
More time passes: Pope John’s voice is heard and he is telling the men to move towards him. His voice is seeming to come from a debris wall within the monkey; the men dig into the wall, climb over it and then see a light dangling from the ceiling — suddenly, they hear more shouting from new voices, telling them to come towards the light, and then cheering. They had been located by a rescue mission almost as strange as their ordeal.
Fellin and Throne had been successfully found via a newly designed drill bit. The bit traveled directly down; it was financed, they would later learn, by Howard Hughes. On the surface, the bit had been brought by the state to appease the miner’s families. The search for the men was widely considered a lost cause, but mounting negative publicity eventually forced Pennsylvania’s hand. It took four days to transport the drilling rig; when it finally arrived at the mine it broke down 200 feet short of the intended drilling site.
In a fit of desperation, the rescuers began digging downwards. Inexplicably, the bit’s drilling site was less than ten feet away from the trapped men. The miners had been in the dark for five and a half days when the rescue team located them.
The discovery of the living miners was literal front page news. It took another eight days to widen the hole to the point that the men could be extracted; every second was tracked by wall-to-wall news coverage. The New York Times and Associated press flew in reporters, and cameras recorded every action. On the 14th day, rescuers were able to bring the trapped miners out via a parachute harness attached to a winch.
Both men were then brought to a military psychiatric hospital for evaluation: doctors initially claimed they were experiencing a psychotic break, but after the men delivered identical reports of their hallucinations, the doctors determined that this was not the case. The evaluations, quite literally, resulted in one observing psychiatrist reporting that she now had evidence of the supernatural. Roman Catholic priests interviewed the men and determined that the sighting of the deceased Pontiff was on some level miraculous in nature.
While this was happening, the search for Bova intensified; the two survivors were able to report his location relative to the site of the initial collapse. Holes began to be dug towards the area he was last sighted in. He was believed to be last heard from on August 20th, the day of first contact with the trapped miners. This was (theoretically) when both men allegedly heard his voice.
Shortly after the rescue of Fellin and Throne, a court ordered the recovery of Bova’s body by the company that owned the mine. In order to find Bova, more than twenty holes were dug to the level of the missing miners. Cameras designed to inspect sewers were deployed, and advanced, hyper-sensitive microphones were dropped more than 300 feet below the surface daily. No probes one saw or heard anything from the missing man.
Eventually, on the 17th day after the collapse, a camera saw what appeared to be a body; a miner from a neighboring county, Andy Drebitko, was fitted with a harness and sent down into the monkey through the initial rescue shaft. Unfortunately, the low resolution (even for 1963) camera had only seen a pile of clothes left by the miners as they changed into the coveralls necessary for their trip up the rescue shaft. Drebitko explored the monkey further and found no sight of Bova.
The search continued into September — more cameras were brought on to site, more holes were dug and eventually the drill undermined the mine itself. The ensuing collapses hampered the rescue efforts. Eventually it became clear that that several months of drilling would be required to find Bova’s body. As the second month of digging dragged on, the courts called off the search; they determined it was fiscally impossible for the mining company to locate the final miner. The ownership of the mine and the surrounding property was given to Bova’s widow by court order.
The end of the search brought no closure: the miners in the surrounding towns began whispering that Bova was eaten by the other two men. Both have explicitly denied this, but rumors persist to this day (and were brought up by Bova’s son at a a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the collapse). Eight years after the collapse, a song by a local band about trapped miners eating each other reached #15 on the nationwide charts. It is unlikely that Bova was eaten; Drebitko saw no signs of cannibalism in the monkey.
Fellin and Throne quickly fell out once they arrived on the surface. Fellin declared that the rescue operation was inefficient: had he run it, he claimed, he could have done everything in six days. He announced this within minutes of his rescue. His confrontational attitude about the rescue drove a wedge between him and the small mining community of Sheppton. Throne, like most people in Sheppton, felt that Fellin’s announcement was disrespectful, and he avoided his fellow survivor as a result. Though they did not associate with each other after the rescue, neither man disputed the other’s account of their time in the mine. Both passed away in the 1990’s.
For the family of Louis Bova, the transfer of the land was a complicated legal issue that resulted in a series of opinions being issued in regards to the taxability of the land; it was eventually ceded to the state of Pennsylvania. The state government is returning the land to its natural state as part of the abandoned mineshaft rehabilitation program. The site of the shaft itself was always mountainous, and the former site of the mine requires considerable off-roading to reach. The rescue hole and the main shaft have been filled in; above the former site of the rescue hole is Bova’s headstone. The marker is surrounded by a white picket fence and lists 1963 as the date of his death.
Because this sounds unbelievable, here is one of Throne’s many interviews on the matter. The chronology changes in each, as do the specifics, but the visions are always the same.
Throne's Account of the Sheppton Mine Disaster
Editor's Note: In August of 1963, miners Henry Throne, David Fellin and Louis Bova were trapped more than 300 feet…
Fellin’s accounts are largely behind paywalls: I found several using GW’s article search to rifle through the Philadelphia Inquirer’s archives. They, like Throne’s shift over time but have many consistent points.
I Included only points that were repeated in multiple interviews and accounted for by both men, with the exception of Fellin’s recounting of Bova approaching only him. The differing details are mostly about the chronology, the methods of drinking/finding water the men used, and what they had to do in the mine to facilitate the widening of the rescue hole.