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.