Jobs are hard to come by in the mountains of southern West Virginia, where closed-up coal mines scar the landscape. So when four people ranging in age from 21 to 43 became trapped in an abandoned mine near the small town of Clear Creek over the weekend, their family members had an inkling of what they might have been doing there.
“The reason they’re in there is to get copper,” Randy Williams, whose daughter, Kayla, was among the missing, said in a Tuesday interview with ABC News. “It’s worth money . . . A couple years ago it was up to almost $4 a pound. You could go into a mine and make $1,000 a day.”
For five days, Williams and others in the close-knit Appalachian community held their breaths as they waited to see if their friends and family members would make it out. On Monday, Eddie Williams, 43, managed to escape on his own. Then, just before 7 p.m. on Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced that Kayla Williams, 25, Erica Treadway, 31, and Cody Beverly, 21, had been located alive and were being transported to a nearby hospital.
"This is an outcome that I really, truly, in my heart didn’t think would happen,” the Republican governor told reporters, calling the rescue “a Christmas blessing.”
The four appear to have entered the mine early Saturday morning. At some point before daybreak, a man who lives near the Rock House Powellton coal mine noticed a four-wheeler driving up the mountain, Raleigh County Sheriff Scott Van Meter told the Register-Herald. The people in the ATV left their car parked along the side of the road, and by Saturday night, it hadn’t moved. Concerned, the man called the authorities, who began searching the area. When they found the abandoned ATV parked outside the entrance to the mine on Sunday morning, they knew that there was a good chance that someone was trapped inside the mine, which has gone unused for the past two years.
Rescuers from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training arrived later that day, as the area was hit by a winter storm that closed schools and government offices. On Monday morning, Justice announced that snow and rough terrain had blocked the rescue team from accessing the entrance to the mine. The rescuers had tried another entrance instead, but water that had pooled inside in the mine prevented them from going any farther.
Tensions were running high at the community center in the town of Whitesville, where family members had gathered to wait for updates. Coffee cups were scattered across the folding tables and a Christmas tree topped with a gold bow did little to lighten the mood. “I got a grandson in there and, sir, I know what you’re thinking, I know he shouldn’t have been in there,” Greg Scarbro, a local pastor and the grandfather of Cody Beverley, told the search-and-rescue officials. “But that’s beside the point. He’s in there.”
Whitesville is home to the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial, which honors 29 people who died in a 2010 explosion. Just about anyone in the area would have known that without ventilation systems running, oxygen levels inside abandoned mines can be dangerously low. No one knew how much food and water the four had been carrying, and some feared that they had gotten separated in the dark. Camelia Williams, the sister of Kayla Williams, told WVNS that locals wished they could take matters into their own hands. “Everyone here is a coal miner, and there’s not one person here who wouldn’t walk into that mine right now and search for all of them if they would let us in,” she said.
On Monday night, they got a glimmer of hope: Eddie Williams, the oldest member of the group, had managed to escape from the mine. The other three were still alive, he reported, and had enough snacks and water to survive for a few days. Using a map, he showed rescuers where to find them. All night long, two four-man teams plumbed the depths of the mine, emerging just before dawn when their breathing apparatus ran out of oxygen.
All day on Tuesday, family members waited at the community center in Whitesville, leaving only to shower and get fresh clothes. Local churches and community businesses kept them fed, dropping off pizzas, trays of sliced meats and a breakfast buffet complete with biscuits and gravy. If Scarbro could see Beverly, his grandson, he told WVNS, the first thing he would do would be to tell him that he loved him. “And the next thing I would do is kick him real good,” he added.
That night, the mine rescue team tried something different. Using large fans, they blasted fresh air inside the mine, while also using pumps to siphon out the standing water that kept getting in their way. By Wednesday morning, there was enough pure oxygen inside the mine to allow the rescuers to go in without their breathing apparatus, Eugene White, the director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, said at a news conference that day. By 4 p.m., he said, they had explored about two miles of the mine.
On Wednesday night, the packed community center erupted in cheers when the phone call came. Family members clapped their hands, jumped in the air and broke down in tears. Forming a circle, they swayed from side to side and sang “Amazing Grace.” Choking back tears, Scarbro told WVVA that he had never given up hope, even when others thought that a happy ending was impossible.
“Now I get to tell my grandson I love him,” he said, “And, hold me to my word, kick him in the heinie.”