Worker In Miner Rescue Commits Suicide

June 13, 2003 -- — He helped save nine lives, and then took his own.

Robert Long, the engineer who helped rescue nine trapped coal miners, committed suicide Monday night. Long, 37, shot himself outside his home in Somerset County, Pa.

It's unclear what prompted Long to take his life. But after playing a key role in last summer's dramatic rescue, Long became embroiled in a bitter public dispute with the men he helped save. The dispute centered on a controversial movie deal Long had obtained.

Hundreds of rescue workers spent three days working to free the Quecreek Nine, as the miners were called, from a flooded shaft 240 feet below the Earth's surface last July. After the nine miners were fished out of the depths, Long was hailed as a hero.

The media dubbed him the "man behind the miracle." Long, a Global Positioning System technician, used high-tech equipment to find the right spot to send down an air shaft that kept the miners alive while they were underground.

Dispute Over Movie Deals

After the rescue, Disney [the parent company of] paid Long $150,000 for the rights to his story, which was produced as a made-for-TV movie. The deal, which equaled what the miners were getting paid to release their rights to the story, created resentment among the rescued men.

Long's comments about the casual way in which the miners dressed at a celebration at the governor's house also angered many in Somerset County.

Then in October, the Washington Post ran a story detailing verbal swipes that Long took at the miners, and they at him.

Tom Foy, one of the rescued miners, told the Post "I don't understand why the hell he got the same amount we did." Long fired back in the same publication: "You know what, you bastards — I saved your god damned life and you still don't acknowledge it."

Harold Messner, a lawyer for the miners, says the dispute was overplayed and that he met with Long last December and told him the miners appreciated his role in the rescue.

"And he [Long] said, 'OK, that's fine.' and so that from point on I'm not aware of any animosity among them. And frankly I think that hatchet was buried a long time ago," Messner said.

Rescue Related Depression

Long's suicide is a reminder that depression is common for people who play a role in high-profile rescue efforts. Rescue workers have committed suicide, for instance, after Hurricane Andrew, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Robert O'Donnell became a prime example of rescue-related depression. He killed himself seven years after he became a hero for helping rescue "Baby Jessica" from a well shaft in 1987.

Rich Boland, a program coordinator of the Critical Incident Stress Management unit of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says rescue workers are in real danger of entering a deep depression when their spotlight is removed.

"It's really nice when you have attention but when all of that attention goes away, it can create some pretty significant side effects," Boland said.

Those who knew Long are attending a memorial mass today.

ABCNEWS' Dan Harris reported this story on Good Morning America.