Mourning mine families share stories and presidential solace

By David A. Fahrenthold and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 26, 2010; A01

BECKLEY, W.VA. -- They sat in the second and third rows Sunday, as President Obama called coal miners the embodiment of the American work ethic. A family that has become the face of West Virginia's grieving by simple, heartbreaking math.

Five men of the Davis family went into the Upper Big Branch mine April 5.

Two came back.

On Sunday, Obama stood at the front of a small arena here and eulogized 29 men who died in an explosion at the mine, the worst U.S. mining accident since 1970. "These miners lived as they died," Obama said. "In pursuit of the American dream."

But even the president, powerful as he is, could be only a guest star in the numb, funny, fitful story of West Virginia's coal fields staggering back to life. For the Davises, the region's worst-hit family, he was only a solemn pause.

For their family, moving on has meant memorial tattoos, inked-on miners crawling across forearms. It has meant retelling stories about snack-cake binges and coal-mine jokes and killing Scarface the bear -- about remembering the dead as they were, alive and mischievous.

And it has meant the question that inevitably follows a mine accident here.

Two Davis men came out of a mine alive.

Would they go back to work in another one?

"If I get my emotions under control, maybe," said Tommy Davis, 42, one of the two. Two days before the memorial, he was talking on the front porch of his home in Dawes, W.Va., near a memorial to his son Cory, 20. His son's reflective-striped work shirt swung from a pole in the yard, like a flag at half staff. "I don't know if I can."

Sunday's memorial service, in a dome-shaped convention center with old basketball jerseys hanging in the halls, followed the rituals of coal country in mourning.

Families approached the stage one at a time, laying a miner's helmet atop one of 29 white crosses. A soloist sang a hymn about a widow finding her husband's coal-smudged Bible. The whole crowd stood and whooped and clapped for the rescue crews who had tried, but failed, to find the 29 alive.

Vice President Biden called them "roughneck angels." The men were remembered as they were known: Griff, Pee Wee, Cuz, Smiley, Boone.

Obama sat grim-faced through the service, then rose and read all 29 names -- it took 65 seconds, alphabetically from Carl Acord to Ricky Workman. Although some here have criticized Obama for his policies on the coal industry, the president praised the miners' work as brave and necessary.

"Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor what so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up convention centers like this, that lights up our churches and homes," Obama said. The crowd cheered.

In the audience was Don Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy, the company that owns Upper Big Branch. At the end of his talk, Obama touched on the questions about safety in the mine and the strength of federal oversight.

"How can we fail them?" he said. "How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work?"

"They are with the Lord," Obama said. "Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy."

* * *

The Davises had already talked to Obama: In the aftermath of the blast, he called family patriarch Charles Davis, 75. It wasn't like in the movies: There was no secretary on the line, no "please hold for the president of the United States."

Davis picked up the phone, and there he was.

"He said, 'This is President Obama,' " Davis said. Obama told him that, if Davis or his wife needed him to help with anything, all they had to do was call. Davis remembered that Obama said that if he wasn't home, "the first lady will take care of it."

The story that led to that phone call began decades ago with Charles Davis's father, Floyd Davis, who immigrated to the hills of southern West Virginia to cut timber but discovered there was better money in coal. His sons went in after him: first Charles's older brother, then Charles. He went underground about 1953 and retired in 1987.

When Charles Davis had children, he tried to persuade them to find other work: He worried about black lung, how "you get your lungs clobbered up" with coal dust.

But the familiar story of West Virginia coal country is that every generation wants the next to avoid coal mining -- and the next generation usually does it anyway.

In the Davis case, it was the next two generations.

"Dad, he lived pretty good. He had everything he ever wanted. And I went underground because I wanted to have everything I ever wanted," said Cody Davis, a beefy man of 21 who is Charles Davis's grandson.

Still, the Davis family was unusual -- not because so many of them worked in mines, but because so many of them worked at the same mine.

There were five of them at Upper Big Branch, owned by Richmond-based Massey Energy: Charles Davis's sons Timmy, 51, and Tommy, and his grandsons Cody Davis, Cory Davis and Josh Napper, 25.

Charles Davis's wife, Linda Davis, was worried about the mine, which had racked up dozens of safety violations: "It should have been shut down." Her worries peaked in the days before the accident, when miners were sent home because of problems with ventilation. Ventilation systems are designed to remove toxic and potentially explosive gases.

"I said, 'Don't you boys go back over there,' " she recalled. "They said, 'We've got to go back over there.' They said, 'Big money.' "

Inside the mine, Tommy Davis and his son Cory didn't work together, but their routines meant they passed each other at least once a day. On the morning of April 5, for some reason, Tommy was more affectionate than usual.

"Last words I got with old -- old Cory Boy," he said, his voice cracking. " 'Daddy loves you, buddy.' "

" 'I love you, too, old man. I'm going to go cut me some coal.' "

A few hours later, something inside Upper Big Branch exploded.

By chance, it happened while Tommy and Cody Davis were within a few hundred feet of the outside: They felt wind rushing out from inside the mine, and fled to safety. The three others were caught deep inside the mine.

They died, along with 26 others.

When Obama called, he told Charles and Linda Davis that Timmy, Cory and Josh had been found together.

Together. Does that give them any comfort?

"No," Charles Davis said. "Not a bit."

* * *

In the first days afterward, the disaster was so big it stopped life here. There were candlelight vigils, food deliveries to the families, viewings and funerals. As miner Robert Clark's funeral procession passed, his mother saw a Little League game freeze, the kids taking their caps off as a sign of respect.

Now, the challenge for southern West Virginia has become living with it.

The Davises and their friends tried writing their memories on their skin. Over four days, more than 90 people trooped into Bare Knuckles Tattoo in Marmet, W.Va., for some variation on the same design: the silhouette of a crawling miner, outfitted with a halo or an angel's wings.

Paul Kirk, the artist, inked them onto forearms, calves, feet, even rib cages -- the most painful spot on the body, he said. Kirk's back ached from hunching over so many body parts, and he was emotionally drained by the conversations.

"I had to be their counselor, you know, and the person to keep their spirits up," he said.

A few miles away, at the house with Cory Davis's work shirt hanging outside, the last few days have also been about making photo collages and telling stories.

Josh and Cory challenging each other to an eat-off of Little Debbie snack cakes. Cory and his father out hunting -- texting each other from nearby blinds, reading camouflage-covered Bibles, finally bagging the elusive black bear they'd named Scarface. At home, the whole family telling mine stories after dinner.

Family members had a friendly rivalry because most of them did the same job in the mines. They were roof bolters, punching reinforcing rods into the ceiling of a mine tunnel to brace the roof above. "Daddy would say, 'I put up 350 roof bolts [in a day]. How many did you do?' " Tommy Davis recalled.

They buried Cory Davis on a hillside above the Kanawha River, and a wreath on his grave is wrapped in the same reflective tape that adorns miners' uniforms.

So: What now?

Already, another Upper Big Branch relative is back at work in another mine. The mines are hiring, and their skills are in demand. Roosevelt Lynch, 33, is the son of William R. Lynch, one of the 29 dead. On Saturday afternoon, he was driving in to work the 3-to-11 shift.

"I've got to pick up slack now that my daddy's gone" and support a stepson as well as his own two girls, Lynch said. "It hurts my stomach every time I go underground. But it's just something I've got to do."

In the Davis family, neither of the two survivors has gone back to work yet -- Upper Big Branch is still closed, but they could find work at other mines.

Most everybody else in the family is lobbying them not to.

Cody Davis said he was going back for sure. "Everybody's been trying to get me to do something else," he said. "But for me, that's what I love."

That left Tommy Davis.

As the service concluded Sunday, a choir broke into song, and Obama took Linda Davis's arm to lead her out.

"Here," she said in the parking lot a few minutes afterward, pulling a rectangle of white cloth out of her purse. "He gave me his handkerchief to wipe my tears with."

A few yards away, her son Tommy was getting closer to a decision: He was leaning toward going back underground. "Probably be another week or so," he said.

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