Down the road from the disaster scene at the Upper Big Branch Mine, two unassuming brick buildings stand side by side, hugging the bank of the Big Coal River. One is the Assembly of God Church; the other is the meeting hall of Local 6608 of the United Mine Workers Union.
When you make your living digging coal, miner Albert T. Bonds says, you'd better have God and family behind you.
"It's a tight bunch — and a religious bunch — that's up and down the river," says Bonds, 51, who worked 27 years underground, eight of them at the Massey Energy Co. mine in nearby Montcoal, where 25 were killed and four still missing in an explosion Monday. "And it's a good place to grow up and be."
But to grow up here is to know that death, massive and swift, can come at any time. It hit home four years ago, when 12 miners died at the Sago Mine in the northeastern corner of the state, and again Monday when methane gas apparently ignited, causing the blast.
Benny R. Willingham, who died in Monday's explosion, was just five weeks from retirement. His daughter, Michelle McKinney, says he was looking forward to a Virgin Island cruise, but was also prepared for death.
"He talked about it all the time. He said if the Lord come and got him, he's ready," she said Tuesday as she clutched a photo of her parents and their youngest grandson. "He was a family man and he loved the Lord. We know where he's at, but we still want him to come back."
In isolated places like Raleigh County, there has never been much of a choice besides coal, timber and low-paying service jobs.
"That's what you get when you live in this area," said Terry Holstein, 49, a mine electrician. "Because that's all we have."
Unincorporated towns — neighborhoods really — cling to the banks of the Big Coal and up into the surrounding hollows. Covered conveyor belts snake up the sawtooth hills behind the clusters of houses, illuminating the moutainsides like strings of Christmas lights at night.
Holstein was supposed to start his underground shift at the Oak Hill mine at 5 a.m. Tuesday, but his boss told him to come in when he felt like it. At 7:15, he was just arriving at Charles B. Jarrell General Merchandise in Dry Creek to buy his day's supply of cigarettes: three packs of USA Full Flavors.
His boss "wanted to make sure our heads was right and stuff before we went in there," Holstein said as he stood on the store's cinderblock porch. "I wanted to be safe about what I'm doing and make sure I really wanted to go up there and do my job, and that I could do it right and safe."
As a herd of painted horses grazed on a hillside studded with redbud and dogwood trees in the slowly lifting mist, miners filed into the Jarrell store, their work pants striped with the telltale orange reflective tape, their rough hands stained with coal dust that can never be fully scrubbed off. The store, with its creaky wooden floors and dust-stained American flag, stocks everything from chewing tobacco and hose clamps to 50-pound salt blocks and apple deer corn for hunting season.
The oldest continuously run business in the county, it also doubles as Dry Creek's Post Office.
Although the names of the dead had yet to be officially released Tuesday morning, store manager Lavon Collins was sure each would be a familiar one. Already, regular takers of her ham and Colby sandwiches had failed to show.
"I usually have all kinds of guys," she said, her eyes brimming with tears. "I'm heartbroken."
Coal pays the mortgages on homes and the monthly payments on shiny new pickups, often bearing "Friends of Coal" stickers. Even though Massey Energy and some of its mining methods have stirred controversy, most here support the company and accuse outsiders of trying to divide the community with their criticisms.
At Flint's Hardware in Sylvester, just 8 miles north of Montcoal, miners' uniforms hung on the walls, equipment waiting to be purchased.
"We probably know 90 percent of the men," said Betty Taylor, who has worked there for eight years. "It's terrible. ... People are just devastated. They don't know what to say, what to do."
At Libby's City Grill in Whitesville, the accident was the talk of every breakfast table, and owner James Scott was grieving his own loss. The family learned late Monday that his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.
Deward Scott had spent his whole career in the mines except for a brief stint to teach karate — a skill he'd learned in the Army. But neither his uncle nor his customers at talked much about their work.
"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."
The tragedy binds everyone, said patron John Bell, 65, a retired schoolteacher from Whitesville.
"It's just like 9/11," he said. "I didn't know anybody personally, but the whole country was feeling it. We're all a part of it."
Larry Asbury, a retired miner from Sylvester, said his son is the director of a Massey mine-rescue team, but he hasn't talked to him since the explosion.
"This is rare, this many deaths," he said. "There's death in the mines every day, but not like this."
Asbury, 69, was an underground miner for 27 years and said he tried not to think about the danger, the fear.
"You didn't, or you wouldn't work," said Asbury, who suffered back, neck and head injuries when he was pinned against a mine rib in 1992. "And if you want to live in your own home, you'll work in the mines."
"God put coal up there," agreed Teddy Jarrell, 45, who works at a paint and body shop but whose father was a miner. "He give us but one way to get it out, that's it. God put the coal up there for us to get out to survive. So that's the way you get it out — take the mountain off."
There is a pride among miners that seems born of inevitability, or resignation. When you have no other choice, you can rage against fate, or embrace it.
"A coal miner is a rare breed," said Bonds, who switched to aboveground work at a coal preparation plant in 2006. "They're somewhat like a soldier, I think. Because every time you go underground, there's always a slight possibility you might not come out. But that's the occupation you've chosen. That's how you earn your living and feed your family."
Holstein, a father of five grown children, was shaken by Monday's explosion. But he has known for years that he could die "anytime, anywhere."
"You just put it in the back of your head and go on."
So on Tuesday morning, Holstein grabbed his lunch pail and said goodbye to his wife, Cassandra.
"Be careful," she told him. "I'll see you this evening."
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