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Mining communities will carry on

WHITESVILLE, W.Va. -- Families like the Greens have sent one generation after the next into Southern West Virginia coal mines.

Mothers like Janet Green and wives like Mickie Green will continue to worry about their sons and husbands, who know mining as a way of life.

"Coal mining's just a brotherhood," said Chris Green, who mines coal at Kanawha Eagle mine in nearby Comfort.

He enjoys the camaraderie that miners share underground, which often spills over into sharing leisure time above ground, be it hunting, fishing or drinking beer.

The Greens turned out Saturday to a makeshift memorial featuring a miner's helmet, boots, candles, flowers and "A Miner's Prayer" poem to honor 29 miners killed following Monday's massive explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Jennie Bennett helped set up the memorial, between a veterans memorial and the public library in Whitesville, where she laid 29 carnations and 29 candles.

"I didn't want 29 laying there," Mickie Green said of the flowers.

"I didn't either," Bennett said.

It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 38 miners died in a coal-dust explosion Dec. 30, 1970, in Hyden, Ky.

Seven bodies were pulled from the mine soon after Monday's 3 p.m. blast, as were two survivors. One of the survivors has been released from the hospital, but the other remains in intensive care. Officials have not released a complete list of the victims.

Eighteen other bodies were discovered during an initial rescue attempt. High levels of toxic and explosive gases forced crews out of the mine three times over the course of the next five days. Late Friday, teams discovered they had walked past the bodies of three of four unaccounted-for miners, unable to see them for the smoke and dust. The last body was discovered at about 11:30 p.m.  Friday, and Gov. Joe Manchin announced the grim results about an hour later.

Many in Boone County went to sleep early Saturday knowing that the four missing miners didn't make it.

Bennett believes the surrounding Boone and Raleigh County communities won't forget the explosion any time soon.

"Our kids will remember this," she said, adding that the explosion might instill a fear in children about coal mining.

Still, Chris Green will continue mining, along with so many others in the community, such as his father and father-in-law.

"It's in the blood," he said. "It's how we was raised."

Green is a fourth-generation coal miner.

Janet Green, his mother, said the people in Whitesville and surrounding communities need to help the families who lost miners cope the best they can.

She knows there'll be frustration and anger over the loss of so many lives.

"And it's hard when your husband and son go back in the mines," she said.

Chris' wife, Mickie, said the mine disaster makes her aware of her own situation.

"Something like that happens, you think about your own family," she said. "What are we going to do ... if he's killed?"

Mickie Green went through school with Gary Quarles, who was among the first miners identified after Monday's explosion.

"He was such a good guy," she said. "There's a lot of coal miners who are heartbroken over him."

Quarles left behind a son and a daughter, she said.

The more than 114-hour search was probably doomed from the start. At this point, officials believe that all 29 miners were killed by the incredible force of the blast, which experts say was likely a methane explosion made far worse by coal dust.

Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said that none of the miners reached any of the mine's air-tight rescue chambers -- and none even had a chance to put on his special emergency breathing device.

"There is destruction just about everywhere" in the mine, Stricklin said. "It covers a very large area. There is damage everywhere. It's an awful site."

On Monday, investigators from MSHA are expected to arrive in West Virginia to begin what probably will be a long and complicated probe.

President Obama, though, has ordered Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main to provide him with a preliminary report later this week "on what went wrong and why it went wrong so badly, so that we can take the steps necessary to prevent such accidents in the future."

"All Americans deserve to work in a place that is safe, and we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all our miners are as safe as possible so that a disaster like this doesn't happen again," Obama said.

Manchin is expected to announce details of the state's investigation plan early this week. Earlier, Manchin said he would order a public hearing and an independent review, as he did following the Sago Mine disaster. But the governor later backed off a bit, and has not confirmed exactly how the state will proceed.

At the Upper Big Branch Mine, Massey was cited repeatedly in the months before the blast for not fixing ventilation problems and for allowing explosive coal dust to accumulate underground.

On Saturday, Massey officials and mine rescue teams focused on trying to recover the miners' bodies. As of early evening, 13 bodies had been recovered and teams were continuing to work, said Jama Jarrett, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

Along W.Va. 3, people continued to cope with the news and mourn the 29 miners.    

One service was held early Saturday afternoon at Sherman Elementary School.                               

Amazing Grace Fellowship church in Seth advertised a special 6:30 p.m. sermon for the miners on Sunday evening.

A few cars in Whitesville sported black ribbons tied to radio antennas, while people at churches, businesses and homes along the highway continued to post signs asking drivers to pray for the miners and their families.  

At an unmarked white church near the mine site at Montcoal, students and staff from Burch High School in Mingo County signed and colored a blue banner and sent a note. The letter and banner were posted at the front of the church.

The letter read: "Our students are so concerned about the welfare of your community. They are also a part of a mining community and understand the fear of losing a loved one. Many of their family members work underground and these tragic events are a constant reminder that tomorrow is not a guarantee but a gift. We continue to pray for you and yours."

Reach Davin White at davinwhite@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.

 


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