The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

Pettus church recalls creating refuge for UBB community

PETTUS — While rescue crews searched around the clock and families of the Upper Big Branch miners waited, lights in Whitesville burned on all the way through that first night — and the second, and the third, and beyond.

For those at epicenter of the shock of the UBB explosion, residents often remember two overwhelming feelings — a need to keep a kind of vigil and a need for companionship.

With doors open night and day, music filling the air and food flowing in and out, the New Life Assembly Church just outside of Whitesville served as a true sanctuary for community members seeking that kind of comfort from their neighbors.

Pastor Gary Williams, his wife Ina and almost the entire congregation banded together to keep the church open 24 hours a day for first four days of the search. Even after that, until the last bodies were recovered, the church still opened in the morning and stayed open late into the night.

“We just wanted to be open for support, prayer — just a resting place for everyone,” explained Gary. “The church’s responsibility is to lend a shoulder to cry on, to cry with them, to smile with them, to lend support and even — most of all — just to listen.”

Gary emphasized that at least 25 members — the vast majority of the church — made it possible to reach out so powerfully to the community.

“It seems like when something great happens [at a church], the pastor gets the attention. But without the congregation, without the people stepping up the way they did, it never could’ve happened,” Gary insisted. “People just volunteered. There’s no way I could name them all.”

Like many in his congregation, Gary is also a coal miner. The disaster hit hard, and it was personal. Gary had just finished his shift at the Ellis Eagle Mine of Marfork Coal Co. when he learned about the explosion. He stopped at the church on his way home to call his wife, Ina.

Meanwhile, after a friend called her about the disaster, Ina had been trying to learn whether her husband’s mine had exploded.

“For a while, I was under the impression it could’ve been [Gary],” she said. “There for what seemed like an eternity, but was for probably five minutes or so, I was thinking it could’ve been the mines where Gary worked.”

Still, the Williams felt the impacts deeply. Gary had worked with several of the UBB miners, and his son was neighbors with one. A close friend of Gary’s had escaped the mine just in time to hear the blast — so close that its force stopped up his ears.

Gary said he realized that the disaster would rock the foundation of his entire community.

“We all knew someone that knew someone there,” he said.

What became a 24-hour refuge began as a simple, natural act to reach out to a shaken community. Gary and Ina called several women together to make coffee, and people began to spill in the doors.

“We just decided to stay as long as people were coming in,” said Ina. “We knew there would be people stopping through to find out information, to talk and even just to grieve.”

As the church filled, it became a central gathering place. At one point during the week, over 70 people had drawn together inside.

“I think it was just because we were one of the closest [churches] to the mine,” said Ina. “It was just sort of like the hub of everything.”

Members came — and, for the most part, stayed.

“They took turns stretching out in the pews to sleep because there were people coming in here all night,” described Ina.

Even when members like Gary left for work, they returned “home” to the church.

“When I wasn’t at work, my duty was here at the church,” Gary said.

Inside, the activity centered around following the rescue efforts, delivering mountains of food, playing music and providing grief counseling. Members gave directions to the mine to passersby — including to a grandmother of one of the 29 miners killed in the disaster.

A steady stream of food poured in, Gary and Ina recalled. To the rescue workers, emergency medical services, State Police, and even reporters, church members carried piles of homemade or donated food. Local businesses provided whole feasts — from Dairy Queen to Little General, Fox’s Pizza Kitchen, Golden Corral of Huntington and others.

Ina explained that once other local churches learned that the New Life Assembly was delivering food, they joined in to work shoulder-to-shoulder with New Life members.

“It wasn’t just bringing food and leaving it, but they would come in and cook and help clean — just everybody from all over,” she remembered.

New Life’s Praise and Worship team arrived to lead weary members in song. Since the church’s number was posted on their outdoor signboard, the phone began to ring, and kept ringing, with calls from across the country — both from the media and from citizens simply wanting to send their support.

“A lot of people just called to say, ‘Hey, we’re praying for you. Our sympathy is with you,’” said Gary.

A team of grief counselors from Billy Graham’s Rapid Response Team traveled among the local churches, along with the president of the Appalachian Bible College. However, Gary and Ina explained, the church members and Gary themselves also counseled each other.

“Though some people are even angry, you’ve got to understand their anger and understand their hurt,” said Gary.

Ina described the delicate balance of offering comforting, yet honest support.

“I would say, ‘I don’t know how you feel because I haven’t been through that ... but I’m here to listen if you need to talk,’” she explained.

The hardest question, said Gary, was one of the most common: “Why?”

“You always say you have these questions to ask God when you get to Heaven,” said Gary. “That could be it for me.”

“People said, ‘Was it an act of God?’ How do you respond to that? I wouldn’t say God made it happen. I will say He let it happen. Do I blame God for it? No. Do people blame God for it? Very possibly … But no matter what, life is not going to slow down for any of us.”

As Ina explained, the church became a second home for people, like a group of four young miners, including her son, who drove directly to the building after work and stayed on into the night.

“They just could not stay away,” said Ina, pointing out how many people felt the same draw to the church. “People would come in and say, ‘I just could not stay home. I just had to talk to people.’”

The long days and nights connected church members in new ways.

“It has affected everyone to where they came together more … that created a bond that was stronger than before,” said Ina.

She described how the work also strengthened bonds between the local churches, which all took on different roles in cooking and distributing food, as well as counseling the community.

“I think that just about every church around here was open,” Ina said.

Looking back after a year, Gary recollected the force of those initial community bonds.

“If you could get the people to come together all the time the same way they do in a tragedy, this world would be phenomenal,” said Gary. “I think just like things go, people slowly go back to normal … Of course, you see memories and things that will jolt your memory … I would say there’s probably not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t think of the men.”

Last year, the Sunday after the disaster, New Life Assembly consecrated the miners’ memory by placing an old miner’s lunch bucket and boots at the altar, with a black bow.

To keep memories of the men strong, New Life Assembly has planned another memorial for April 3 this year — the Sunday before the anniversary of the explosion.

Gary described a deep admiration for how his congregation faced a time of crisis.

“The church family itself, they done the work that God called them to do,” Gary said, though he stressed the focus of the work — the miners.

“It’s still not about me or the church, but it’s about the men that died and their families, and about the men that was on the property and escaped this. And it will haunt them forever.”

However, Gary also shared the words a friend told him in the aftermath of UBB, words that ultimately gave him the deepest comfort.

“He said some words that I’ll never forget as long as I live,” Gar said. “‘Even though we can’t reach those men, God can … He knows the final answer.’”

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