Page 4 of 4   <      

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

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.

Then, when the bolts were set, came Benny, the scoop-man. He drove in on a small tractor, scooping up loose coal that had spilled on the ground. Typically he scattered a flame-retardant layer of rock dust on the exposed coal on the walls, to dampen the risk of the coal igniting.

They were working inside one of the most valuable outposts of Massey Energy's empire: The coal in Upper Big Branch is especially high-grade. It was also a mine with a history of safety violations.

Pee Wee told family members at Easter that he worried about the mine's roof, and was concerned about going to work Monday, the Associated Press reported. But family members say the others didn't talk much about concerns like that.

"You've got to realize: West Virginia miners don't talk to their families about the mines," said Betty Harrah, Steven's sister. "They don't want us to worry."

* * *

About 3 p.m., other members of the day shift had left the mine.

Stanley Stewart, coming in for the next shift, was a few hundred yards into the tunnel when the blast happened. "I felt a breeze, like similar to when a thunderstorm comes up," Stewart said. "And it started getting stronger."

Then it became so strong it was carrying things: coal dust, flying buckets, pieces of wood. Stewart ran.

Rescuers found the mantrip at 66 Crosscut, about 1,500 feet from daylight. Members of the Old Man Crew were lying on it.

"I was watching TV when they started showing pictures" of the explosion, said Linda Clark, Robert Clark's mother. "I kept sitting, a-waiting to see Robert, because I knew that he would be there, trying to help the others get out."

At Willingham's house in Corinne, W.Va., they were waiting for a phone call. It was Willingham's custom, when he got out of the mine for the day, to call his wife and say he was okay. "Monday evening when we didn't get our telephone call, we knew something was wrong with Benny Willingham," said his son-in-law, Danny McKinney.

In the mine parking lot, Stewart tried to give one of them CPR. "I couldn't become emotional. I felt like somebody else." An ambulance crew arrived and told the miners that "we couldn't save them," Stewart said.

Willingham, Harrah, Acord, Clark and Lynch, the heart of a crew that had been together for years, all died. So did two other men working with them: Deward Scott, 58, and Jason Atkins, 25.

Two of the men on the mantrip, Tim Blake and James Woods, both longtime members of the Old Man Crew, survived.

* * *

Neither Massey Energy nor authorities have released a definitive account of what caused the blast, though high levels of the explosive gas methane were detected afterward.

So for now, the story of what happened to the Old Man Crew can only be sketched -- pieced together using accounts from authorities, Upper Big Branch miners, their relatives and friends.

Jim Lucas, their friend and fellow miner, imagines them riding in the mantrip, relaxed. In a few minutes, they would be in the bathhouse, washing off the coal.

"I'm thinking they're joking around. Other than taking a nap, there's not a whole lot else to do on a mantrip," Lucas said. Often, their jokes were so well-used that another member would retort "I knew you were going to do that!"

Robert Clark's mother said authorities told her it was over so fast that none of the men on the mantrip suffered.

"I got to go view him yesterday. Does not have one mark on him," she said Thursday. But she dwelled on how close he had come to getting out alive. "Another five minutes, and he would have been out of the mines."

Staff photographer Linda Davidson contributed to this report.

<             4

© 2010 The Washington Post Company