In the Coal River Valley

Mining town waits for word on missing miners after blast

Four coal miners were missing after the explosion Monday in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Authorities were left with only slim hopes that the missing miners could be found alive more than 1,000 feet underground amid a buildup of toxic methane gas.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

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.

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