In coalfields, days of prayer end in sorrow
By Allen G. Breed
The Associated Press
MONTCOAL,W.Va. -- Gary Jarrell was shooting the breeze with customers at his general store when an ambulance went hurtling north down Coal River Road.
He didn't think much of it, until he saw another, and another, and another.
Then came several fire engines, followed by a half dozen State Police cruisers. News travels fast in the hollows, and it wasn't long before someone called to say there'd been an accident a few miles down the road at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine.
In this narrow, river-bound valley, the 125-year-old Jarrell General Merchandise store is the closest thing to a community center. Jarrell normally closes up around 5:30 p.m., but the steady stream of people stopping by to offer or ask for news continued until 3 the next morning.
As the day wore on, the news trickling in grew grimmer and grimmer. Seven dead. Twelve dead. Twenty-five. Perhaps more.
Jarrell and his wife, Margaret, were supposed to go to Canada's Prince Edward Island to scout a charity mission rehabilitating homes for the elderly. But there was no way they could go now.
The community needed the store, this gathering place, more than ever. And Jarrell knew that there would be a need for the other service he provides the valley.
Graves would need digging.
Trouble near the 'Glory Hole'
At 3:02 p.m. last Monday, computers on the surface detected a major seismic event deep inside the mine. It came from about a mile and a half inside the mountain, near an area known as the "Glory Hole."
A half hour from the end of his nine-hour shift, coal car operator Melvin Lynch, 50, of Mount Hope, felt his ears pop. Suddenly, the mine went dark.
The power goes out occasionally when someone runs over a cable, so no one on the section panicked.
When the shift was over, Lynch and the other men on his crew made their way to the surface. It was only when another crew emerged and reported that they'd been showered with debris that Lynch knew that something was wrong.
By 4 p.m., the first word of fatalities reached the surface. Lynch's older brother, Roosevelt, 59, was among them.
Around the same time, Gov. Joe Manchin was in South Florida, enjoying a visit with friends. The legislative session had just ended, a budget had been approved, so Manchin and his wife, Gayle, jumped on a plane Easter Sunday and headed south.
Manchin was chatting when a member of his security detail came in and said there'd been an accident.
"We think we have a problem," the officer said. "We think there might be some fatalities."
Manchin's mind instantly reeled back to a frigid January morning in 2006. Manchin was in Atlanta to cheer on West Virginia University's Mountaineers against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl when word came of a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.
The 12 resulting deaths inspired state and federal safety legislation requiring coal operators to improve underground communications, and to equip their mines with airtight chambers stocked with enough food, water and oxygen to last several days.
As Manchin -- whose own uncle was among 78 killed in a 1968 mine explosion -- rushed to catch a plane home, he found some comfort in the thought that if any of the Montcoal miners had survived the initial blast, they had somewhere to hunker down and await rescue.
The state's mine rescue team and several others were in Logan for training when news of the blast reached them. By 4:30 p.m., they were racing toward Montcoal.
'They didn't make it'
Around that time in Rutland, Ohio, Josh Napper's fiancee, Jennifer Ziegler, opened a sealed note he'd left for her and their 20-month-old daughter Jenna Leigh the day before -- Easter Sunday.
Napper, 25, had only been in the mine a few months. He'd been worried about safety conditions recently, and he told Ziegler to open the note if anything went wrong.
"Dear Mommy and Jenna," it read. "If anything happens to me, I will be looking down from heaven. If you take care of my baby girl, watch over [her], tell her all the good things about her daddy. She was so cute and funny. She was my little peanut."
At 4:58 p.m., Massey, the parent company of mine operator Performance Coal, sent out its first press release about the explosion. A little over three hours later, the company announced the first casualties -- seven dead, 19 unaccounted for.
Janice Quarles, whose 33-year-old husband Gary was in the mine, and other family members were secluded in the mine's safety office, a corrugated metal building on the mine site. Around 9:30 p.m., a man entered the room and told the crowd that the 19 had been located in a refuge chamber.
Janice Quarles went home to put her children -- 11-year-old Trevor and 9-year-old Rabekka -- to bed. She lulled them to sleep with assurances that Daddy was safe in "one of them holes," and that he would soon be home.
As it turned out, this was yet another echo of Sago.
Four years earlier, Manchin, based on information from the site, had told the media that the 12 Sago miners had survived. Family members camped out in a church near the mine site rushed out to the pealing of bells tolling the "Miracle in West Virginia," only to have that euphoria crushed two hours later.
After tucking the children in, Janice Quarles returned to her vigil at the mine site.
Shortly before midnight, state and federal officials gathered to brief the media at an elementary school down the road from the mine.
Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced that the known death toll had risen to 12. But he also offered what he considered a hopeful sign: Rescue crews had found a cache of self-contained breathing devices from which several appeared to be missing, perhaps taken by the miners.
Not long after, company officials informed the families that two miners had been taken to area hospitals alive, but that there were now 25 confirmed casualties. One of them was Gary Quarles.
That still left four men unaccounted for. But at 1:42 a.m. Tuesday, a Massey press release announced that rescue crews had been pulled from the mine "due to conditions underground" -- smoke and, worse, high concentrations of carbon-monoxide and explosive methane gas. They had gotten to within 200 yards of the farthest refuge chamber.
Manchin arrived on the scene before dawn Tuesday. After getting the latest briefing, he went to visit with the families.
He was speaking with Linda Davis -- whose son, Timmy Davis Sr. and grandsons, Cory Davis, 20, and Napper were unaccounted for -- when an aide walked up and handed him a piece of paper with the four latest confirmed fatalities.
Manchin was horrified to see the three men's names were on it. The governor quickly ushered the family into a private room.
"Linda," he said. "They didn't make it."
"Were they together?" she asked quietly.
Amazed at the woman's strength, Manchin replied, "Yes. They were all together."
By then, the Quarles children had also learned that their father would not be coming home. At 9:36 a.m., Trevor Quarles logged onto MySpace and wrote simply: "R.I.P. Dad ILY."
I Love You.
Bad air readings and candlelight vigil
That same day, work crews began bulldozing a road up the side of the mountain to a point just above where officials believed the explosion occurred. Drill rigs were brought in to sink a series of bore holes that would ventilate the noxious gas from the mine and allow rescuers to re-enter.
Around 4 a.m. Wednesday, the first hole punched through the mine ceiling 1,100 feet below. It was not until mid-afternoon that officials reported the test results. They were not good.
Carbon-monoxide levels were at 14,000 parts per million, hydrogen at 10,000 ppm, and methane concentrations were at 3 percent -- readings so bad that workers around the drill rig were sickened.
Officials decided to drill more holes. There was also talk of sinking a hole closer to the rescue chambers in order to send down a camera and see if the shelters' balloon-like sides had been deployed.
Later that evening, about 300 people walked through nearby Whitesville in a candlelight vigil for the miners. Slowly and silently, participants -- many wearing the iconic orange reflective stripes of underground miners -- marched through the two-light town, turning at Armstrong Funeral Home and looping back toward Whitesville Elementary.
Shortly before 3 a.m. on Thursday, officials announced that gas readings in the mine had reached non-explosive levels. At 4:55 a.m., after a briefing and a last shave to ensure a proper seal for their oxygen masks, four eight-member rescue teams boarded a railcar and re-entered the mine.
While they were underground, a storm front passing through the area caused the barometric pressure to fall, allowing gas levels to creep back into the danger zone. After three hours of riding and walking, the teams had gotten tantalizingly close to the first rescue chamber -- within 500 feet -- when they were pulled back a second time.
When the announcement came, Mark and Andrea Cook were standing vigil by the mine entrance with their two sons, Joseph, 8, and Joshua, 12. Andrea Cook went to high school with Gary Quarles, and Joshua is Trevor Quarles' classmate at Marsh Fork Elementary.
Mark Cook, 39, had just gotten off a shift at a Massey surface mine, and all four family members were wearing his dark-blue work shirts.
"It's hard," Andrea Cook said, glancing worriedly toward the mountain as storm clouds continued to gather. "Because we may not all be related to each other, but we're all family."
The rescue chambers at Upper Big Branch were designed to sustain 15 miners for 96 hours. Although each of the missing would have more resources available to him, officials had promised the families that the rescue teams would try to reach the chambers before that time window had closed.
At 12:45 a.m. on Friday, less than 15 hours before the end of that magical fourth day, two teams of eight re-entered the shattered mine. Traveling on motorized vehicles, the trip would take about half as long as previous attempts.
Despite the venting, gas levels were still hovering precariously near explosive limits. So the decision was made to pump in nitrogen to "inert" the mine -- depriving any potential spark of life-giving oxygen, but also requiring the rescue teams to wear their masks the whole way.
They got to the first chamber. It had not been deployed.
The teams headed for the second chamber, about 2,500 feet deeper into the mine. But before they could reach it, they encountered smoke -- meaning there was still a fire burning somewhere deep inside the mine.
For the third time, they were ordered back.
At the afternoon briefing, the news only got worse.
Stricklin announced that the drill boring the camera hole had struck a solid pillar of coal. The hole was useless.
"Not a whole lot has seemed to go our way," a dejected Stricklin said.
The one bright spot was that methane readings had been dropping. So at 2:30 p.m., the teams entered the mine a fourth time, hoping the nitrogen had snuffed out whatever was making the smoke.
'Now the healing will start'
For hours, there was no word at all. Then, at 11:57 p.m., five ambulances pulled up to a bridge at the mine entrance, and state troopers worked frantically to get them across the Coal River and into place.
People keeping vigil there thought this was a hopeful sign, until the vehicles backed into place and turned off their engines.
About a half hour later, Manchin and federal officials left the families and headed down Route 3 toward the school where the media had been waiting.
At 12:38 a.m. Saturday, the rest of the world learned what the families already knew.
Stricklin told reporters that three of the four missing men had apparently been obscured by smoke and coal dust when rescuers made their first pass through the mine on Monday. The fourth and final missing miner was found deeper into the mine around 11:30 p.m., a half hour before those ambulances crossed the river.
None of the chambers was deployed, he said. Death appears to have come instantaneously.
"We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for," a crestfallen Manchin told reporters. "So this journey has ended, and now the healing will start."
The final death toll was 29 -- the worst mining disaster in 40 years.
Retired miner William "Hot Rod" White was watching the news conference with several others in a smoky video poker room down the road in Whitesville. When officials vowed a thorough investigation, White shouted, "Amen, brother!" then hopped in his car and sped away, leaving behind the unopened beer he'd just purchased at the convenience store next door.
City Councilwoman Patty Ann Manios simply took off her glasses and began to weep.
"Oh God," she moaned. "Oh God."
Workmans Creek Cemetery
Up a steep switchback gravel road, past an abandoned rail siding that vanishes into a tangle of blackberry brambles, a patch of land sits high above the creek with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. This place, near the town of Pax, which means "peace" in Latin, is Workmans Creek Cemetery. It is Deward Allan Scott's final resting place.
Scott's grave is toward the back, behind that of his parents, Mary Lea and Quillie. Up the hill a way, a gnarled pink dogwood is just bursting into bloom.
Aside from short stints in the Army and as a karate instructor, Scott had spent nearly half of his 58 years in the mines. His family learned late Monday that he was among the dead. The next day, they contacted Gary Jarrell about digging the grave.
When Jarrell started digging graves two decades ago, all the work was done by hand, with shovels. Nowadays, he uses his Mustang backhoe on some jobs, but most of Raleigh County's family cemeteries are perched on hillsides too steep, in hollows too narrow and isolated for heavy machinery.
Jarrell went with the family on Wednesday to tour the remote burial ground. He would need the shovels.
Despite torrential rains Thursday that turned the hillside into a muddy soup, Jarrell and a cousin stabbed at the rocky earth with their spades for 5 1/2 hours, quitting only when the sun set. On Friday morning, the two men, accompanied by Jarrell's nephew, a Marine home on leave, returned with a jackhammer to break through the last few inches of sandstone and shale.
Over the years, Jarrell had dug many graves for coal miners -- men who'd died of black lung disease or old age. But never for someone who had died in the mines.
"I guess I would rather bury an old person that has lived a long, long life than I would young person or middle-aged person that got killed in an accident," Jarrell, his hands calloused from digging, said. "The younger the person is, I guess, the harder it is."
Associated Press writers Greg Bluestein, Lawrence Messina, Dena Potter and Vicki Smith contributed to this report.