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Upper Big Branch survivor's rehab slow, uncertain

AP Photo
Sherry Lilly holds a photograph of her father, coal miner James Woods of Cool Ridge, Raleigh County, who is recovering in a North Carolina hospital from injuries he suffered in the April 5 blast at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A few days before the Upper Big Branch coal mine blew up, James Woods had a nightmare -- he was pinned down, held by his arms, unable to move.

It was, his daughter believes, "God's way of telling him that something was going to happen."

After the blast, Woods awoke from a coma in a Charleston hospital bed and tried to yank out feeding and ventilator tubes. Doctors were forced to tie down his arms for more than a week.

His dream was right on the mark.

Twenty-nine men died inside Massey Energy Co.'s mine in Montcoal, an hour south of Charleston. One other man was briefly hospitalized; Woods was pulled out barely alive.

More than a month after the incident, the devout Christian, devoted family man and determined prankster is a fraction of his former self, unable to converse and seemingly lost in a brain that was starved of oxygen from carbon monoxide exposure.

"You know he's in there," daughter Sherry Lilly said recently in the family's first interview since the April 5 explosion. "Sometimes he'll have an expression that you're used to seeing, but then sometimes it's just blank."

Woods -- a husband at 16, a father at 18, and 54 by the day of the blast -- suffered bruised lungs and brain trauma, and his family has no idea what, if anything, he remembers. They don't talk about the incident in front of him. They don't ask, either.

They just thank God for miracles large and small -- his survival, three consecutive words from his mouth, his ability to walk again.

Those first steps were "amazing to see, and very tearful," Lilly said. "It was like watching a baby walk for the first time. It really was. I have three children. It was like, 'Wow.'

"Physically, he's doing good, but mentally, he's like a small child. He doesn't even know why he's here."

Woods had worked in the mines for 17 years and was an electrician at Upper Big Branch, where he was part of the "old man crew" -- miners who took the long ride to the coal seam together and whose experience added up to decades.

Woods and eight others were aboard an underground vehicle that was on its way out of the mine at the time of the explosion, according to Danny Spratt, state mine rescue team coordinator. Seven of those men were killed.

Rescuers found the other injured miner, whose name has not been publicly released, walking out along the underground tracks, Spratt said. The man was treated at a hospital and released within days. He has declined interview requests.

With Woods earlier that day was his 32-year-old son, Jeremy. Lilly said Jeremy Woods had left the area late in his shift to get some supplies he needed to complete his own work. Jeremy Woods was still inside the mine when the explosion occurred, but got out unhurt.

"He realized . . . my dad was in there," Lilly said. "[H]e tried to go back in and . . . men had to restrain him because he was going back in to get Dad."

Jeremy Woods has talked little about the disaster, Lilly said. She said he would not be interviewed for this report.

Massey Energy has come under fire since the explosion for its safety record, at Upper Big Branch and in general. The company didn't respond to a request for comment on Woods' situation.

The elder Woods' relatives are just thankful for their blessings -- "I have my dad, when the others don't," Lilly said -- and focusing on helping him get better.

It's his speech and memory that pose the biggest challenges. Progress is measured a few syllables at a time. Woods often speaks in a whisper, and his sentences are short. Sometimes it's difficult for him to remember members of his own family, although he seems to light up when his grandchildren visit his room.

"That has been overwhelmingly like a sigh of relief, that he recognizes the kids," Lilly said.

Woods, who has lost more than 20 pounds since the blast, doesn't understand his surroundings. He especially disliked the almost daily three-hour hospital rehabilitation sessions that worked on improving his mind. He was recently transferred to a facility in North Carolina that specializes in such work.

Mainly, he just wants to go home. His family wants to see him playing golf and horseshoes and hunting turkey, deer and squirrel, serving as church deacon and choir member, playing jokes on his loved ones.

It could take up to a year and a half to determine if a full recovery is even possible.

"There are so many 'what ifs' right now," Lilly said. "That is what's so hard."


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