Mining town waits for word on missing miners after blast

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A01

MONTCOAL, W.VA. -- The first night, they prayed for a big miracle. The next day, people in the Coal River Valley were left hoping for a small one -- and wondering how many of the dead they knew.

By evening, workers were drilling through a Swiss-cheese mountainside to reach four miners who might still be alive after the nation's deadliest mine accident in a quarter-century, an explosion that killed at least 25 men here.

In the towns below, there was nothing but speculation and waiting -- to learn the fate of the four, and the names of the men lying in a temporary morgue at the firehouse in Whitesville, W.Va.

"I thought all day about what I was going to say to the families" when the bodies were identified, said Greg Scarbro, a minister and miner himself, who headed home to wash the coal dust off his face before he went to comfort families. "I'm hoping I'll have the right words when I need 'em. But right now I don't have 'em in me. I might just cry with 'em awhile."

The explosion happened about 3 p.m. Monday, as the day shift was ending. The men working closest to the mine's mouth got out first. As they were getting cleaned up, the ground shook, and the power went out.

Then, one miner said, a gust of dust-filled air blew out of the hole. Then came the people.

"They was running, and they were coughing," said the miner, who declined to give his name. He spoke in the doorway of his mobile home here, his body displaying scattered tattoos. The survivors told him that they had seen carbon-monoxide levels suddenly rise, and oxygen levels drop. And then, a blast of air strong enough to move the heavy cart that had carried them.

"They said everything went black."

The miner said Tuesday that he was left numb. He would be devastated if he lost one friend in the mine. Now, whole crews were gone.

"You find out that it's that many, it's 25, and you don't know what to do," he said.

People in the Coal River Valley -- a string of little towns wedged into wide spots between the valley walls -- were left with a free-floating dread.

In a place where mining is the mainstay of the economy, most of them were certain they knew at least one of the dead.

The question was who. They made phone calls, and passed gossip at the City Diner in Whitesville, a few miles north of Montcoal. The neighbor boy? The one who was in my daughter's class? Arvon's Floral hadn't sold a single condolence bouquet -- people were either in shock or didn't know quite who should receive flowers.

"I'm sure we musta put clothes on them," said Harry "Red" Brewer, in the roadside store where he and his wife sell miners' work clothes. They have sold so many young men their first uniform for a Massey Energy mine: red hat, green reflective tape sewn on the shirt. And they have seen many come back to get the black hat and orange tape that signified a promotion worth $5 more an hour.

Now, they wondered: Which miners?

"These guys are like our sons," said Marion Brewer, who sews on the tape. "Here I told my son to go into the mines. Now this happens. Boy, I'm glad he didn't listen to me on that."

About 50 people gathered Tuesday evening for a vigil at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Whitesville. The Scripture reading was the Easter story, Jesus rising from the dead. Priest S.A. Arokiadass said the point was to reaffirm that, for Christians, death is not final.

In the pews, a few people cried through the service.

"They're not affected [directly], but they are affected, because they're all coal miners," said Arokiadass, a native of southern India who came to West Virginia three years ago. "Coal is their life," he said. "And when people die in the coal . . . they've lost something within them."

The miners' families were sequestered near the mine on Tuesday, although some did speak to reporters.

Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion, along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20, according to the Associated Press. Timmy Davis Jr. said of his father: "He loved to work underground. He loved that place." Two other family members survived the blast, he said.

Elsewhere, the roadside signs that advertise dinner specials or upcoming sermons had been changed to messages of hope for the missing men.

"Pray for our miners family's," someone had written in the coal dust that coated the front window at Carrie's Country Corner Market in Whitesville.

A few blocks away, a similar sign hung outside the New Life Church assembly hall: "Pray for our miners and families."

But inside, a group of miners' wives looked at the situation differently: If it weren't for coal, places like this couldn't exist.

"We've had people come here and ask us, 'Why do they coal-mine?' " said Ina Williams, a little incredulous. "It's just the life."

Two seats down was Tammy Gordon. Her husband, son and brother are miners, and before them her father and father-in-law. She said the accident was a reminder that, even in 2010, men still go down in mines and don't come back. And, even in 2010, people here accept that.

Along Coal River Road, the area's many mines are marked by roadside signs that say "Ambulance Entrance" and the name of the mine.

"You just have to have faith that God has them in his hands," Gordon said. "Because if you don't, you'll just go crazy. . . . As long as they still haven't found them, we still have hope."

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