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Funerals begin for Upper Big Branch miners

MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Grieving relatives began burying victims of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster Friday. At least 25 miners were killed in Monday's explosion, the biggest U.S. mining disaster in more than a quarter-century.

More than 300 people packed Mullens Pentecostal Holiness Church for the funeral of Benny Willingham, a 61-year-old miner who was five weeks from retiring when he died.

He was saved 19 years ago this week, said the Rev. Gary Pollard, pastor of the Mullens Family Worship Center, where Willingham was a deacon. The two had weekly 45-minute talks -- about God, about Christian living, about their families and friends -- every Sunday morning for the past five years.

Pollard said the last time he saw Willingham, the miner's words were almost prophetic: "If I die tomorrow, I've lived a good life."

"He wasn't the biggest man in town. He didn't have the stature of some of you sitting here," said Pollard, whose own church across town was too small for the crowd. "But if you could see the size of this man's heart, you'd see a giant."

Willingham was dressed in a red shirt in the open coffin, jet-black hair and mustache neatly combed, family snapshots tucked in the satin around his head and shoulders. The image of a pick, shovel and miner's helmet was embroidered in the fabric along with his name, and a flag draped the lower half of his coffin in a nod to his service during the Vietnam War era in the Air Force.

Three Air Force veterans, friends of his for more than 40 years, traveled with their wives from Ohio, California and North Carolina to say goodbye.

"That's astonishing," said the Rev. Lewis Arnold, pastor of the host church, "but that is Benny Willingham."


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