NORTON, Va. — The bodies of seven mine workers were found late Wednesday in a southwest Virginia coal mine that was ripped by a huge explosion early Monday morning.
Eight miners had been working more than 3,000 feet into Southmountain mine No. 3 when they apparently hit a seam of methane gas, triggering the blast. A massive rescue effort was thwarted by heat and a gas buildup Tuesday and it was not until 5 p.m. Wednesday that rescue teams were able to re-enter the main shafts leading into the mine.
A little less than three hours later, the teams reached the area where the men had been working and found the seven bodies. William Tattersall, chief of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the seven apparently had died at their work stations.
Another buildup of methane forced the rescue team to withdraw, suspending the search for an eighth miner.
As freezing rain pelted the mountain, word of the deaths was relayed to family members waiting in school buses 1 1/2 miles from the portal of the mine. The southwest Virginia area has been notorious for gassy mines but had not seen a serious mine explosion for nearly a decade.
Family members in one school bus had placed sheets over the windows for privacy. News that the men had been found dead trickled down to the encampment about 15 minutes before the official announcement and sobbing could be heard from the buses.
Since the huge explosion shook the mountain, wives, mothers, children, brothers and sisters of the eight miners had sat hour after hour on the hard, straight-backed seats, staring numbly ahead, struggling with increasing difficulty to maintain their hope and dignity.
Around them in the December gloom had sprung up an encampment of portable toilets, warming tents and television trucks, populated by ministers of the gospel, journalists, neighbors and the curious. Almost everyone who came brought food for those in the buses--armloads of pizzas, home cooking in Styrofoam coolers, boxed meals.
That's always the way it is when men are trapped in a coal mine.
These disasters with their prolonged and public suffering have a way of grinding down the most courageous. They also have a way of uniting mining towns such as Norton, Va., and bringing together a coal-digging brotherhood.
As the families waited Wednesday, so did Roy Beverly, who spent 30 years in the mines and now is recovering from lung cancer surgery. So did 79-year-old Ezra Nixon, a miner who helped remove the bodies of 45 friends from a mine at Red Jacket, Va., in 1938, and 92 more from an Island Creek Coal Co. mine in West Virginia in 1940.
But while the scene outside Norton had a brutal sameness and predictability for old men such as Beverly and Nixon, there was nothing repetitious for the people huddled on bus No. 92.
"Nothing in the world can prepare you for this," said Mike Stanley, police chief of nearby Clintwood, Va., whose cousin was in Southmountain No. 3.
Stanley was on the bus not only to await word of his relative but to shore up the others on the bus. He was a miner once. His father had died in a mine in a Christmas accident.
The specter of such tragedies caused him to quit the coal fields and a $40,000-a-year job for a less hazardous career as a small town policeman, starting at $17,000 a year.
So he sat on the bus and acted as a buffer for the others, helping keep reporters and photographers at bay, helping steel them for the moment they all feared.
His friends did not want to become a spectacle in their grief, he explained hours before the bodies were found.
"There's this stigma about us being ignorant hillbilly people," he told a photographer, who wanted to come aboard No. 92. "They would prefer that you just stay back. . . ."
The sensitivity expressed by Stanley is seldom spoken, but it is deep, a feeling of political, social, economic and physical isolation from the more prosperous sections of states such as Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia--and a feeling of being patronized and put on display when mine tragedy revisits.
Families on the bus did not say it but friends said that they were wounded more than soothed when Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder rushed here Tuesday and spoke with reporters before he came over to see them.
As darkness fell Wednesday night, with sleet and snow expected across the mountains, rescue workers were again making their way into the mine. Rescuers had made it nearly 3,000 feet into the mine Tuesday before being driven back by heat and gas levels that raised concern about the possibility of another explosion.
Just before noon, workers had finished drilling an eight-inch-diameter shaft into an area near the spot where the miners were working at the time of the blast.
After lowering instruments to sample methane levels, experts had concluded it was safe to resume rescue attempts and shortly thereafter three rescue teams re-entered shafts leading from the portal into the mountain. When they returned, the long wait was over.