Sadness Swells Across W.Va. Mining Communities

A West Virginia mining community is mourning the loss of more than two dozen miners. A bell sounded Saturday for each of the 29 killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, the worst in the U.S. in 40 years.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

In Raleigh County, West Virginia, a devastated coal mining community is mourning the 29 men who died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine on Monday. The funerals and memorials held since then are a grim reminder of the dangerous underground work.

NPR's Allison Keyes attended a service last night and has this report.

Bishop J.L. CLYBURN (Senior Pastor, Fountains of Liberty Church of God): Grover Schemes(ph).

(Soundbite of a church bell)

Bishop CLYBURN: Adam Morgan.

(Soundbite of a church bell)

ALLISON KEYES: They came wearing uniforms from coal mines from miles around, denim with neon stripes of bright green and orange and reflective strips on the sleeves and pockets. They held hands. They held each other. They cried and they honored the men Bishop J.L. Clyburn called real American heroes.

Bishop CLYBURN: As their mining lives extinguished in that dark mine in that dark place, the true light, the light of the world was the first rescuer on the scene.

(Soundbite of congregants)

KEYES: The grief here is tangible. It hurt to see so many big, solid men, heads bowed, red-eyed with their loved ones rubbing skin scrubbed clean but still stained by the coal they work in.

There were women and children, too, crying right along with Bishop Stephen Board(ph) who talked about attending the wake of Robert Clark(ph), one of the miners killed last Monday.

Bishop STEPHEN BOARD: And as I walked up to that casket and I looked at Robert's body, I could not help but think of his soul being transported to the portals of glory.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Rest High on that Mountain)

KEYES: This community has a strong faith and both pastors told the mourners to rely on that to help them get through the sadness. It's worse because many here were hoping that four miners who were unaccounted for had survived the blast in airtight chambers inside the mine. But early Saturday, their bodies were found.

Coalminer Rob Sturdel(ph) came here after work and tried to put into words the brotherhood miners feel, working in a profession they know is dangerous.

Mr. ROB STURDEL (Coalminer): I've kept up with it. Guys at work have kept up with it. It's just part of the family.

Ms. TONI DANIEL(ph): My daddy was a coalminer. My uncle is a coalminer right now, as we speak.

KEYES: Toni Daniel came to support all of the families and says dealing with this tragedy has been really hard. But she admires the strength of both the miners and the women who support them.

Ms. DANIEL: The bottom-line: coalmining is just as dangerous as if you're going to be on an airplane, if you get on a train, or if you get out here on the interstate to travel to one place from the next. You know, it's just - you have to get on your knees and pray every single day, every single night.

Bishop CLYBURN: Steven Harrah(ph)...

(Soundbite of a church bell)

KEYES: Daniel and others stood along a wall because the wooden pews were overflowing in the white framed church. It was built in 1921 and was the center of a coal camp in Pemberton, West Virginia, before it was moved to its current site at a coalmine museum in Raleigh County. It's still a gathering place for this close-knit mining community.

After the reading of the names, mourners filed out, walking passed a pulpit that includes a pillar topped with a coalminer's helmet and goggles.

Coalminer Rob Sturdel planned to visit the family of a friend killed in Monday's blast, but he had to go back to work at midnight.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Raleigh County, West Virginia.

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