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In W.Va. mine, the 'Old Man Crew' held tight

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Federal investigators will arrive at a West Virginia mine today to begin their investigation into what caused an explosion last week that killed 29 miners.

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

MONTCOAL, W.VA. -- Their trip started at least 40 minutes from daylight.

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The guys known as the "Old Man Crew" had finished their shift digging coal out of Upper Big Branch mine. They walked through its lattice of tunnels to a mantrip, an open-sided cart that runs back to the surface on rails.

There were nine of them in the cart, rolling through semi-darkness. "Head" was the crew boss, whom they ribbed about his giant, rectangular noggin. "Pee Wee" was the new grandfather. Benny was a recovering drinker who beat the bottle with the help of Jesus and a Bowflex machine.

They were smudge-faced miners with decades of experience doing jobs better suited for their sons and nephews. They had become friends in other coal mines, and some had worked together for more than 10 years. Now they worked here, at a high-earning Massey Energy mine.

All had lived the old story of West Virginia's Coal River Valley. A stint in the military for some, a job at an auto garage or a parts store for others. Then each in his own time accepted -- often embraced -- a life underground.

A few minutes after 3 p.m. last Monday, West Virginia officials say, their cart was nearing a tunnel called 66 Crosscut.

Less than 10 minutes from daylight.

* * *

The story of the Old Man Crew began long before last week, when an explosion deep inside the mine killed 29 men. Four miners were missing, the subject of desperate search efforts, until their bodies were found late Friday night.

It was sometime around 1994, relatives said, when Benny Willingham and Carl Acord were assigned to the same crew in another mine. They liked each other and stuck together.

Willingham -- at 61, old even by their standards -- was sometimes teased as "Dad." He went into the mines 32 years ago after serving in the Air Force. A former wild man with a handlebar moustache, he found religion 19 years ago, his family said: A feeling struck him and he ran to the altar, holding a baby grandson.

"I guess the Holy Ghost just hit him," said his daughter, Michelle McKinney. Willingham channeled the energy he used to spend partying into church and his Bowflex and weightlifting equipment. "Strong as a mule," his son-in-law said.


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