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Mine families turn to faith, prayer

TALLMANSVILLE — The bell rang twice at Sago Baptist Church Wednesday.

Shortly after midnight, it pealed to announce miraculous news — after almost two days underground, 12 miners had been found alive. But the miracle turned out to be too good to be true, and only one man, 26-year-old Randal McCloy, survived. He was in critical condition Wednesday night.

On Wednesday evening, the church bells rang again, this time at a candlelight memorial service for the fallen men. More than 100 co-workers, friends and family put aside their anger, confusion and anguish to praise God and the men who died.

The church has served as shelter, both physical and spiritual, for family members since the accident Monday morning. For days, family members crowded onto its tiny porch and stared a half-mile down the road at the entrance to the mine.

Early Wednesday, family members moaned inside that church as they were told their loved ones were not alive, as they had believed for the last two hours, but dead. They shouted out in disbelief.

Pastor Wease Day asked families to turn to God in their sorrow. One man reportedly asked, “What has God done for us?”

But the people who spoke at the service said their faith was the only thing bringing them through the tragedy. They believed that God would make it clear one day, and they would hopefully see the men again.

Day spoke of Fred Ware, a fellow parishioner who lived across the road from the church. Ware loved to talk and was good-natured, he said, the sort of man who didn’t mind being awakened to help install gutters at the church next door.

Some of the most poignant testimonials came from fellow miners, most of whom choked back tears to talk about their colleagues.

“Yeah, we complain to our wives about this one or that one, but in the end, any one of us would give up our lives for another,” one miner said. He added that he hoped the tragedy would lead mine officials to prevent future disasters.

“Maybe their sacrifice will help save the rest of us someday,” he said.

Another miner said the men would not soon be forgotten. He asked the crowd to listen to the fans from the ventilation shafts across the road, the same fans that were unable to bring air to the dead men. He said that sound would forever remind him of his friends.

“We’ll take them down with us every day,” he promised.

The service was organized by Shon Sublett of Philippi, who works in another International Coal Group mine and knew many of the dead. He said two of the miners, Marty Bennett and Terry Helms, showed him the ropes when he was a “red hat,” a beginning miner.

Chuck Rutherford, a firefighter from Buckhannon, had directed traffic at the site since Monday. He said the hardest thing for him to do was tell a miner’s elderly parents they couldn’t park in the overcrowded church lot. Some had to walk a half-mile to the church.

“I would have carried each one of you if I could,” he said, crying.

The entire town of Buckhannon seemed to be trying to carry the miners. Along W.Va. 20, a dozen signs sprang up saying, at first, “Pray for the miners,” and later, “Pray for the miners’ families.”

At times, the community became protective of the miners’ families, besieged by national and international media. Fire trucks and police officers kept media away from a church at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, where some family members and Gov. Joe Manchin met Monday.

Ron Linger of Sago Baptist Church said he was angry at how some people in the media treated families. He was inside the church early Tuesday when Geraldo Rivera of Fox News burst through the doors to join the families’ premature celebration.

“That Geraldo, he run into the church and he stuck microphones into everybody’s face, saying ‘What’s happening, how do you feel?’ I had to chase him out,” Linger said.

Benny Nazelrod, a firefighter from Adrian, was more generous to the media. He said he met one reporter from Washington, D.C., who said he didn’t know his neighbors there, but was impressed at how “you all seem to know each other” here.

He also talked about the offers of help that poured into Upshur County from all over the world.

“We discovered this week that Upshur County is a community, West Virginia is our community, and America is our community,” he said.

To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.


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