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

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A01

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

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.

Willingham was five weeks from retirement, close enough to have plans. He would take a Virgin Islands cruise with his wife and attend more of his grandson's baseball games.

Acord, a big man, was Pee Wee. He started in mining the day after he turned 18. He was 52 now, with two new grandsons, Chase and Cameron, under a year old. He had bought them little red wagons for Easter.

About 10 years go, the crew recruited a new member from the latest class of "red hats," Massey trainees marked by red hardhats. Robert Clark, 41, a man handy enough to rebuild cars and build a grandfather clock, had come to the mines in his 30s.

"He was working as a mechanic at AAA Transmission up in Beckley, and he just looked up at me one day, says, 'Mom, this ain't no future,' " said Linda Clark. "I really didn't want him to go into the mines, but . . . that's where the money is at, in West Virginia."

After he started at the mine, he took in a video camera so his mother could see what he did, running the mining machine.

The Old Men liked his skills, she said. He liked their style.

"He said, 'Mom -- they're just a big cut-up,'" Linda Clark said.

They were not going to let him get away without a nickname. Clark tried to cast off his childhood nickname of "Bubby" for the more professional-sounding "Rob." The crew called him "Dick Clark."

William Lynch, 59, had worked with the crew for more than a decade, and in mines since he was 23. He wanted to be a teacher, his daughter said, but the mines paid better. Sometimes, he tried to do both, teaching during the day and working the late-night "Hoot Owl" shift at the mine.

Steven Harrah left a job at an auto-parts store for the mines 10 years ago. Even though he was the boss of the crew, they called him "Head" for his gigantic cranium.

"They loved picking on their boss," said Jim Lucas, who worked alongside the men at a Massey mine called White Queen, before they shifted to Upper Big Branch a few months ago. "Believe it or not, until this happened, that ["Head"] was the only name I knew him by."

The men were high artists of the mine-bathhouse prank: glue on the locker, hair dye in the shampoo, clothes stolen during a shower and left in the parking lot. Once, Clark rubbed his own clothes with ramps, wild onions with a powerful stench, so the rest of the crew would spend the day smelling him.

Their friendship spread off the job. They saw each other at kids' birthdays, parents' funerals. Clark fixed Benny's car when water got into the gas tank, restrung the guys' bows for deer season. At Massey Christmas parties, the crew sat together and even won a company karaoke contest with their rendition of "Elvira."

"It was about like sitting with family," said Melissa Clark, Robert Clark's wife. She said that other companies were always trying to poach him because of his skills -- one even hit him up at the gas station last week -- but he wouldn't leave the crew.

As other mine crews broke up and re-formed, this one stayed together: Willingham, Acord, Clark, Harrah, Lynch and the others.

"They might not have loved what they did, but they loved what they were doing" together, said Betty Harrah, Head's sister. "They might not have loved being under that ground, but they became a family underground."

* * *

Last Monday, the Old Man Crew was working the day shift. To get to a wall of coal in the furthest reaches of the vast mine, other miners say, they probably rode on a mantrip, then walked the last stretch.

Their job was to run a "continuous miner," a huge machine that grinds spinning teeth into a wall and drops out coal as fine as dirt. The crew usually worked without speaking: the machinery is so loud that the men wore earplugs.

After years together, they knew their roles.

Often, Clark -- the one with the mechanical gifts -- ran the machine, using a remote control a bit bigger than a shoebox.

The coal that the machine scraped out was picked up by the "buggy men," Lynch and other members of the crew driving what look like small dump trucks. They took the coal to a conveyer belt that hauled it through the mountain to the outside.

Then, after the machine had eaten away an entire room into the mountain, it would back out, and two roof-bolters would move in.

One of them was usually Pee Wee: He drove steel bolts about three-fourths of an inch in diameter into the ceiling of the mine, and glued them in place. This is the modern-day equivalent of the wooden beams that used to hold up mine roofs: Now, the bolts compress the rock in the ceiling itself, making it into a layer strong enough to hold up the mountain.

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.

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