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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

Amid fleeting joy and devastating anguish, miners' families cling to a solitary miracle

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
A pastor, center, at Sago Baptist Church leads a candlelight prayer service for the lost miners. A pastor, center, at Sago Baptist Church leads a candlelight prayer service for the lost miners.
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The hills around Upshur County, West Virginia, are dotted with clapboard chapels with names like New Life Pentecostal Tabernacle, the Living Word Church of God, and Way of Holiness. For more than two centuries, a stark brand of Calvinist Christianity has served the spirits of these tough, hard-working people.

An explosion trapped 13 men inside Sago Mine No. 1 in Upshur County Monday morning, and a drama of hope, ecstasy, and finally loss played out against the background of their foursquare faith.

The lost men's families gathered at Sago Baptist Church to wait for news. With no control over the rescue operation and little information coming in, they turned to their faith to help them through. A tag team of area ministers took turns tending to them. Most of the ministers had ties to at least one of the trapped men.

"Miners and their families know their job is risky," said Pastor Rick Price, a former coal miner who now ministers at New Hope Community Southern Baptist Church in nearby Rock Cave.

"Close calls happen weekly, at least. Mine disasters have a real history around here, all down the generation. The Lord might call you home today. He can call your brother or your son away. People here understand that."

Despite memories of crushing loss, they still believe the impossible can happen when faithful people pray.

Even Gov. Joe Manchin III knows that. He's a Roman Catholic, he said, but he was raised speaking the evangelical dialect.

"West Virginia believes in miracles," the governor declared Monday evening to assembled TV cameras. "Our hopes are high. Our faith is good. Our family is strong."

International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield peppered his announcements of dire news with appeals for divine help.

"We ask for nothing but your prayers," he said early Tuesday, as the miners' chances faded. "We're clearly in a situation where we need a miracle. And miracles do happen."

"Our goal is to keep hope alive as long as there is hope," Mr. Hatfield said later in the day. "We pray. We ask you to pray."

The community did.

"Pray for Our Miners," commanded the sign outside the Hardee's Restaurant in nearby Buckhannon. "The miners and families are in our thoughts and prayers," testified a hand-lettered sign outside the High Life Lounge in Elkins, 23 miles distant.

Time passed. The trapped men were talked over: Martin Toller had abiding, upbeat faith in Christ; Jerry Lee Groves was a devout Baptist; John Bennett was "a strong, fine, Christian man."

Tuesday evening at Sago Baptist was a round of prayers, hymn-singing, counseling sessions, and friendly chit-chat.

Mr. Price was there. "We were talking about how our lives are all connected up in so many ways," he said. "When something like this happens, it hits all of us. We're spread out over the mountains, but we're really a small community."

One miner's body was found that evening. The assembly mourned together, but 12 families clung to hope.

"I thought we were in for a series of these statements," said Tim Flint, 49, stepfather of miner Randal McCloy, Jr., 26, of Simpson, W.Va.

But at midnight the pastor said, "Somebody in the church let out a whoop and a holler. 'Twelve alive!' he shouted it out."

And like a combustible mix of methane and coal dust, the rumor ignited 40 hours of anguished expectation. The room exploded with joy.

"We screamed and danced and kissed and hugged," Mr. Manchin said. "We were all just so caught up in this miracle, these 12 miracles of ours.

"When [someone reported] they found 12 alive, the place just erupted," Mr. Flint said. "But there were mixed emotions. One didn't make it. Other than one family, it was beyond words, how excited we were."

For a time, Mr. Flint said he and other relatives of the miners were anticipating from what they had heard spreading through the church that the miners were going to join them there.

"That did come to mind to me," that no official had confirmed that the 12 miners were alive, Mr. Flint said. But joy was too infectious to dwell on that doubt.

Families sang hymns of praise. The church bell rang out. One youngster testified to his faith. Six people "came to Jesus," Reverend Price said. "I just hope the faith that was born there was enough to sustain them through what came next."

What came next was the arrival of state police - "more than ever before'' - with mine company officials, Mr. Flint said.

Mr. Hatfield finally spoke truth from the pulpit and crushed the celebration. All 12 were found, he said. All but one were dead.

"They announced there was only one survivor, and it was my son. It got wild in there. My husband just pulled me out of there," said Mr. McCloy's mother, Tambra Flint, who noted that emotions were already high and nerves taut in people who for long hours had been "packed in like sardines" or were spilling out the doors of the small church.

"There was a lot of anger. You're told, 'They're OK,' then 'They're not.' There was a lot of hollering and cussing," Mrs. Flint said. "I was afraid I might be a target.

"It was a tragedy on top of a tragedy," said the Rev. Ralph Miller, pastor at nearby New Light Church. "For two hours they praised the Lord for answered prayers. Getting the truth was like being hit with a hammer."

"To think what those families went through in three hours. There was hugging and singing and kissing," said Mr. Flint. "If you made a mistake, my goodness, be honest. Say, 'I don't know.'"

With their hopes smashed and their emotions cruelly manipulated, the believers in the Sago church are faced with a personal dilemma of Biblical proportions, Mr. Miller said.

"Tragedy draws some people closer to the Lord. Some people, it drives them away," he said. "Right now these families are in such pain there's really no reaching them. All we can do, really, is love them. And keep believing in God's purpose. And pray."

Mr. Miller is counseling the John Bennett family as well as he can. They are "deeply offended and hurt," he said. Fred Ware, another of the 13, was his friend since childhood. The pastor's daughter went along with the Ware family on Wednesday to identify the miner's body.

"We all are just numb. We're all just asking, 'Why?' And no one has an answer to that," he admitted.

Mourners marked their losses with a vigil at Sago Baptist Church Wednesday night. Thursday Bible study went on. Funerals are being arranged throughout five counties.

But all were not lost. Mr. McCloy, in a medically induced coma yesterday, flickered his eyes and bit his breathing tube - signs he was "awake underneath our coma," said Dr. Richard Shannon, speaking for the treatment team at Allegheny General Hospital.

"We didn't get all 12 of our miracles. We got one. We'll take that," Mr. Manchin said.

"The Lord must have some wonderful purpose in mind for that boy," Mr. Miller said. "See, we're a praying people here. We pray in our hope, and we pray in sorrow."

"The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away," Mr. Price said. "Blessed be the name of the Lord."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rebekah Scott is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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