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.