Police said Nathan Bowman was trespassing on coal company property around 1 a.m. Friday when he slipped and fell into the Springdale Pit, an inactive mine about 700 feet deep, 3,000 feet long and 1,500 feet wide.
Bowman tumbled down a jagged slope and then free-fell several hundred feet, his descent broken by a rock ledge not far from the bottom of the pit, said Coaldale Police Chief Timothy Delaney, who helped direct the rescue effort.
"If you look at that drop, there was no way somebody could survive that," Delaney said.
Bowman, 23, of Tamaqua, was in serious condition Friday night at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem. The extent and nature of his injuries was not clear, although rescuer John Fowler said it appeared he suffered a number of fractures.
Bowman and a friend were walking around the pit when he went over the side. The friend called 911, and Coaldale police and firefighters began a frantic search, according to Delaney.
State police got into the act several hours later, using a helicopter, floodlights and thermal imaging to try to pinpoint Bowman's location in the pit, about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
"It got really, really dangerous," Delaney said. "My guys were fantastic; they were heroes, risking their lives in total darkness."
The search was called off at daybreak. Shortly thereafter, Delaney went to the offices of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co., which owns the Springdale Pit, to notify officials of the situation.
"I said, 'Let's take a ride over there and show me where it occurred,'" said Fowler, 40, a project manager at the company.
Their luck was better this time.
"Within about three minutes, we found him," Fowler said. "I thought I could hear a muffled call for help. We yelled to him and asked him where he was, and he said he thought he was on a ledge."
Fowler, who moonlights as a state firefighter instructor, and a Coaldale police sergeant scouted a relatively safe route to Bowman and stayed with him until more help arrived.
Two firefighters rappelled down to the ledge, loaded Bowman onto a basket and tied themselves to it. Then all three were painstakingly hoisted up.
Bowman was lucid when he arrived at the top of the pit late Friday morning, wanting his harness loosened, asking that someone call his brother and expressing fear about riding in a medical helicopter, said Sarah Curran Smith, a vice president at Lehigh Coal.
Bowman's survival is "pretty unbelievable," she said. "I think the universe has bigger plans for Nathan. I hope he realizes that."
Bowman faces charges including defiant trespass, according to Delaney.
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