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Coal families, community seek solace at service in Whitesville

Andrew Clevenger
Paul Lombardi (center) and other Whitesville-area residents bow their heads during a mass Tuesday evening for the dead and missing miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Andrew Clevenger About 50 people came to the service at the small church in Whitesville.

WHITESVILLE, W.Va. -- The Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, remembers leading a mass in Philippi after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006.

On Tuesday night, he was leading an all-too-familiar mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Whitesville, a day after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County killed at least 25 miners.

"This is devastating because it's not expected," Bransfield said. "To imagine [the miners'] suffering is a further burden on our people."

He called for an improvement in monitoring and safety conditions in mines.

"Many of them [the miners] spent a good deal of time in those mines because they were working to provide for someone else," he said. "We know that it is a very dangerous profession."

After Christians celebrated a beautiful Easter Sunday in West Virginia, Monday's explosion marked an abrupt swing back to tragedy, he said.

He compared the grieving families to Mary Magdalene weeping at Christ's tomb.

"We can imagine what her heart was like, how heavy it was," he said.

Outside the tiny church, some people said they came because they wanted to show support for those affected by the tragedy.

"You live here, and you know it's a way of life," said Christina Pauley of Whitesville. "This community is so small -- everybody knows everybody."

Her parents were both underground miners, and they first met in a coal mine, she said.

Pauley, who has a year left at Marshall University, said she and her boyfriend were considering working at a mine to help pay for college.

But after Monday's accident, they had abandoned that plan, she said.

Paul Lombardi, who moved to West Virginia from the New York City area a few years ago, said Monday's disaster reminded him of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But in the kind of community where the waitress knows your breakfast order without even asking, the devastation is even worse, he said.

"Our town is turned upside down overnight," he said.

Reach Andrew Clevenger at aclevenger@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

 


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