New book digs up dark secrets of Sheppton mine disaster, NEPA’s “greatest urban legend”

Mocanaqua author signing books in Berwick, Wilkes-Barre, and Pottsville

 Brad Patton

As a lifelong resident of Northeastern Pennsylvania, music journalist and author Maxim W. Furek has always been interested in finding out what really happened during the Sheppton mine disaster.

And since he didn’t see anyone else delving into the mystery of the August 1963 disaster, he decided to take on the subject himself.

Furek, a Berwick native who now makes his home in Mocanaqua, published his third book, “Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music,” late last year. The book, which explores what happened to two miners who survived a mining accident on Aug. 13, 1963 and spent two weeks underground before being rescued, is published by CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.com.

Before his various book signings throughout the area, Furek talked about miracles, cannibalism, secrets, Stephen King, the Pope, and the region’s “greatest urban legend” with NEPA Scene.

NEPA SCENE: First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

MAXIM W. FUREK: I’m among the first wave of Northeastern Pennsylvania rock journalists that includes Jerry Kishbaugh, George Graham, Jack “Ozzie” Smiles, LA Tarone, and others. I was founder of Timothy, a newspaper created “to promote Northeastern Pennsylvania’s musical talent.” At that time, The Buoys’ “Timothy” [1971] had been the region’s most successful rock song. Curiously, through a strange sequence of events, Timothy evolved into the highly successful Pennsylvania Musician and Maryland Musician magazines.

“The Jordan Brothers: A Musical Biography of Rock’s Fortunate Sons” [1986] was my first book. The Jordans were the first group to release “Gimme Some Lovin’” – even though England’s Spencer Davis Group had written it. On Nov. 12, 2011, I inducted the Jordan Brothers into the Schuylkill County Council for the Arts Hall of Fame, which was a big thing for me. The group deserved every bit of the attention and tribute that they received. Unfortunately, they were virtually unknown in the Wilkes-Barre area.

(Note: Furek’s second book, “The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin,” was published in 2008.)

NS: What sparked your interest in the Sheppton mine disaster?

MWF: I’ve always been interested in Sheppton. It’s the coal region’s last remaining secret and our greatest urban legend. I didn’t see anyone else delving into the mystery and, as a baby boomer, I felt an obligation to document this weirdness, perhaps, for a younger generation. But too, in a sense, I wanted to celebrate the macabre legacy of Northeastern Pennsylvania just as Stephen King successfully did for Maine.

NS: Why is there still an interest in what happened in that mine more than half a century later?

MWF: Even after 53 years, Sheppton remains current. The rescue technique developed in Sheppton was used during the 2010 Chile copper mine disaster that saved the lives of 33 Chilean miners. That ordeal was documented by Pulitzer Prize winner Hector Tobar in “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine,” and also in the motion picture “The 33.”

Another variable of current interest is about the miraculous. The rescued miners, David Fellin and Henry Throne, believed that Pope John XXIII was with them during their two-week entombment and had saved their lives. Numerous Vatican researchers and academics reached the same conclusion. Some were convinced that what had transpired in that horrible pit was nothing short of a miracle, evidence of the workings of God.

NS: Since the disaster happened more than 50 years ago, how did you go about your research?

MWF: Sheppton continues to resonate, and people continue to talk. I spoke with relatives of the miners, with residents of the Sheppton area, and with Schuylkill county folks. I spoke with individuals involved with the rescue operation who provided detailed information. Some were eager to talk with me, while others disclosed personal information only if I kept their names confidential. It was amazing, the number of people who seemed apprehensive about revealing Sheppton’s secrets. There were a number of individuals who knew Fellin and Throne but did not like them on a personal basis. Rather than castigate the miners, they opted to not say anything about them, so it was a mix of different attitudes and beliefs.

NS: Do you think you have uncovered any new information about the disaster?

MWF: Probably not. The story of the rescue technique and the drilling technology of that era has been well documented. There have been several books written, as well as numerous documentaries, so that ground has already been sufficiently covered. What I attempted to bring to the table was a different perspective, a different approach. I wanted to investigate the elements of the miraculous but also of the supernatural.

My chapter on the “Hollow Earth” will probably be one of the more controversial because it is something that has gone virtually unnoticed. People will debate if this is science fiction or science fact.

NS: What do you mean by “the Sheppton Mythology?”

MWF: Sheppton is much more than just a mining disaster with innovative coal mining technology and a successful rescue. The Sheppton Mythology is bizarre and fascinating. It resonates on sundry levels. These include themes of the supernatural and of the miraculous. But there are also darker themes, such as the grotesque allegations that hint at cannibalism. Sheppton represents a convergence of elements, a modern day mythology that has yet to be unraveled.

NS: How does the mine disaster tie into music, especially “Timothy” by The Buoys?

MWF: I was always intrigued by the grotesque allegations of cannibalism during the Sheppton ordeal. Remember, we were only teenagers at the time. Sheppton’s theme of cannibalism predated George Romero’s cult film “Night of the Living Dead” [1968] and was our equivalent to today’s “Zombie Nation,” “World War Z,” and “The Walking Dead.” It seems as though every generation has a need to explore these terrifying and morbid themes.

The song “Timothy” by The Buoys was not about Sheppton, yet countless people needed to believe that they were connected. Man strives to find meaning. I tried to explain that fascination as a separate, tangible reality, and I would argue that it is a separate, tangible reality.

NS: How long did you spend on the Sheppton book between research and writing?

MWF: In 1980, I interviewed Rupert Holmes, who wrote “Timothy,” so I guess that’s about 36 years working on the project. I never finished the Sheppton manuscript because I was involved in numerous other projects. About a year and a half ago, I decided to finish it. I basically rewrote the book and utilized two professional proofreaders, plus my wife, Pat. She’s the best – has a keen eye. We spent a lot of hours proofing it. I’m so glad that it’s over. It’s been a long and strange and arduous trip.

NS: Have you started on your next project yet? If so, can you tell us what it will be about?

MWF: My next book is titled “Celebrity Blood Voyeurism.” It explores the public’s pathological addiction to celebrity self-destruction (i.e. Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Elvis, etc.).

Chapter in new book explores the Sheppton – Timothy connection

The cover of the Buoys’ album which contained the hit single, “Timothy.” On the cover, from left, are Jerry Hludzik, Chris Hanlon, Fran Brozena, Bill Kelly and Carl Siracuse.

Maxim W. Furek’s third book focuses on the Sheppton mine disaster of 1963. The book, “Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music,” explores the supernatural mythology surrounding the disaster.

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BY JACK SMILES, CITIZENS’ VOICE CORRESPONDENT  Published: January 31, 2016

Max Furek’s new book, “Sheppton,” about the 1963 mine collapse in the small coal-patch town near Hazleton that became international news, might be seen as a departure for a writer who describes himself as a music journalist, but the subtitle “the myth, the miracle and the music” shows he hasn’t wandered too far.

Early in the book, Furek connects music to the Sheppton victims — Louis Bova, who was killed and never recovered, and Hank Throne and Dave Fellin, who were rescued after 14 days — through the country music juke box at Dado’s Cafe where miners drank and to Sammy and the Valiants, the rockabilly group that played at Ann’s Cafe, which Throne ran with his girlfriend on East Mine Street in Hazleton.

But the real meat of the music referred to in the book’s subtitle is the 1971 Billboard hit song “Timothy” which was, or wasn’t, about Sheppton and the song’s veiled allusion to cannibalism. Furek devotes a chapter to song, wherein he explores the uncanny parallels to the disaster and “Timothy.”

Sheppton, from page C1

Sheppton is in the Northeastern Pennsylvania coal fields. The band that recorded “Timothy”, the Buoys, were from the Wyoming Valley section of the coalfields, just 20 miles from Sheppton. The Sheppton accident became nationwide news. Eight years later, the song “Timothy” went nationwide, too.

At Sheppton, three miners were trapped by a cave-in. Two survived and were rescued. One was never found. In the song “Timothy,” three miners were trapped by a cave-in. Two survived and were rescued. One was never found.

Timothy was written by Rupert Holmes, of Pina Colada song fame, recorded by the Buoys and released by Specter Records in 1971.

Furek makes the case that the parallels, however eerie, are pure coincidence. Holmes was from New York City and was only 12 when the Sheppton accident happened in 1962. Holmes insists he never heard of Sheppton until after “Timothy” became a hit. In the chapter, Holmes is quoted saying, “If I had known about that (Sheppton) at the time, I probably never would have written the song because I don’t want to make fun of something that’s tragic. I sadly found out there was a parallel in reality, but only after the fact. It never occurred to me that there could be anything quite like that.”

Bill Kelly, the Buoys lead singer, a West Wyoming native and Wyoming Area alum, was in New York with the Buoys when Holmes played the song for them on a piano. Kelly affirmed Holmes innocence. “Rupert never knew anything about Sheppton,” Kelly said in a phone interview from Nashville where he lives. “The correlation between the incident and the song are totally random.”

In the book, Furek writes that Holmes purposely wrote a song about cannibalism hoping it be “controversial” maybe even get “banned” in some quarters, thereby generating publicity and sales. That happened, but Kelly doesn’t remember it being purposeful.

“As far as controversy,” Kelly said, “Rupert told us he wrote the song purely for fun, not knowing anyone would ever hear it. He was writing a song with a Tennessee Ernie Ford vibe, you know, ’16 Tons.’ His wife was in the kitchen watching the Galloping Gourmet. Only Rupert’s sense of humor could put the two together, but he did.”

Furek tells a very similar story about Timothy’s creation in the Timothy chapter. Furek also writes about an ad campaign Scepter ran in the trade magazines to both diffuse the negativity about the cannibalism intimation and boost sales. The ad asked readers to vote on whether “Timothy was a boy, a mule, a dog or a canary.”

In the chapter Furek mentions a New York Times story at the height of “Timothy’s” power where the Buoys told a reporter, “The song is a fictionalized version of a true incident that reportedly occurred many, many years ago in Pennsylvania.”

Kelly doesn’t remember that specifically, but he said, “I remember that back in the day, we all told different stories to different reporters, which was designed to make everybody think they had the real scoop when nobody did. The song was not a fictionalized anything. It was really just a goof. He played it for us one day during a break in the quote-unquote serious recording. We laughed so hard and decided to cut it. But nobody expected the results. I believe it sat on the shelf for 11 months until Michael Wright, our producer, put horns and strings on it.”

In the “Timothy” chapter Furek makes clear he doesn’t believe the song was written about Sheppton, but notes the tepid reception the song received throughout the Schuylkill County region, where many believed it was disrespectful.

“Bottom line,” said Kelly, “we recorded a silly song that became a pretty big hit that launched some pretty wonderful careers. We never treated the folks from Sheppton with disrespect, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever even met someone from there. Conclusions were jumped to, controversy was part of it and we went along for the ride. And really the whole cannibalism thing was an obvious tongue in cheek thing on our part.”

Tongue firmly in cheek, the album the Buoys recorded around “Timothy” was named “Dinner Music.”

At the end of the song Kelly’s vocal soars as one of the rescued miners sings, “God what did we do?”

Kelly’s interpretation of that emotional line?

“My cry out at the end was meant to express the frustration of someone waking up to being part of a horrific event, not being able to remember.”

“Timothy” debuted on the Billboard Top 40 chart on April 17, 1971. It was on the chart for eight weeks, peaking at No. 17. While the song was banned in some major markets and did poorly in others, it was wildly successful in some, like Chicago, where it was a Top 10 hit on WCFL and where DJ Bob Stroud still plays it occasionally on his “Rock and Roll Roots” radio show on 97.1.

“Timothy” pops up — along with songs like “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, “Sweet City Women” by the Stampeders, “Sky Pilot” by the Animals, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf and even “Another Day” by Paul McCartney – on various oldies compilations.

“Timothy” was even reissued as a collectible 45 with “Shaking All Over” by the Guess Who on the B side.

The other side of the “Timothy” cult coin has the song on Dr. Demento’s 1995 25th Anniversary Collection with “The Curly Shuffle” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim.

Nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry included “Timothy” in one of his columns, which turned into “Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs,” where the song is listed as the fourth worst song of all time.

So which is it? An all-time classic that charted higher than the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” in 1971 and is found on compilations with Paul McCartney? Or a novelty song about cannibalism that makes worst songs lists?

Unlike almost any other song it is both.

The Buoys line-up which recorded the “Timothy” single included Fran Brozena, keyboards and guitar; Bob Gryziac, bass; Chris Hanlon, drums; the late Steve Furmanski, guitar, and Billy Kelly, guitar and lead vocals.

For the album “Dinner Music” that contained “Timothy” Hludzik replaced Furmanski and Siracuse replaced Gryziac.

Author Maxim W. Furek will discuss his book, “Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music,” and sign copies locally. See Schedule here.

© 2017 The Sheppton Myth