The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

Family, friends of UBB survivor helped feed rescue workers

WHITESVILLE — The rich smells of fresh-baked biscuits and sausage blended with a bittersweet mix of tears, relief, pain and exhaustion on the night of April 5, 2010. In the back of their friends’ kitchen in Whitesville, J.R. and Terry Mitchell gave thanks that their son had escaped the Upper Big Branch mine explosion as they cooked late into the night for the workers searching for those who had not made it out.

“That could’ve been our son,” said Terry.

The Mitchells’ son, who chose to remain anonymous for personal reasons, worked at UBB on the same shift as those who died. That very day, he had spent time in the part of the mine that exploded but had traveled later to another section. At the end of the day, he had the option to travel back through the mine on the motor or ride back around the outside.

He chose to ride outside — and just managed to miss the explosion.

“It was just a freak thing that it wasn’t our son,” said J.R. “We were just thankful and prayed to God after we heard what was going on.”

As soon as the Mitchells’ son arrived at their Sylvester home, he prepared to go right back out and join the rescue effort.

“So we all stood on the porch and prayed,” said J.R.

However, by the time the Mitchells’ son reached the mine portal, the mine rescue team had everyone they needed.

Still, the son said, he felt a deep desire to help in some way.

“All those guys working — they’d give the shirts off their backs, every one of them,” he said. “That’s the way it is underground. That’s why I love it.”

The Mitchells would soon have their chance to help — for nearly 72 hours in a row. A few miles away in Whitesville, their close friends Nancy and Jimmy Platt, who formerly ran the restaurant Nuttin’ Fancy, were just returning from the birth of their granddaughter at the hospital.

 “A neighbor yelled and told us that a friend of our son was in the explosion,” said Nancy. “Then everything started progressing, and we knew we had to do something.”

The pair of cooks began what they knew best — rustling up a meal.

Over the phone with the Mitchells, they learned that their friends’ son was safe — and recruited help for the kitchen.

“I called Jimmy, and he said, ‘I ain’t got no help,’ so we went up there,” J.R. explained.

“They said, ‘You realize we can’t pay you,’” remembered Terry. “We said, ‘We don’t expect anything. We’re just doing this for the community.’”

The friends began to cook in earnest. The Mitchells’ son found his chance to give back to the rescue effort: He took $500 from his own pocket to buy food for the rescue workers.

The cooking turned into a full family effort. The Mitchells’ daughter and her husband and baby daughter joined the group in the kitchen. Even Terry’s elderly mother baked several cakes from her own home.

In the kitchen, J.R. stood behind the grill for over seven hours, Jimmy mixed up fluffy biscuits from scratch, and other friends and family members stuffed them with bacon, egg, cheese and sausage. The Platts coordinated with Fox’s Pizza Kitchen as orders started coming in from the emergency responders.

“We made 150 biscuits the first go-round for the fire station, and the second set was 100 for the state troopers,” said Nancy.

When the Platts’ kitchen ran out of flour, the Mitchells remembered, the manager of Fas-Chek opened up the store for them late at night.

Those simple, first efforts by the Mitchells and Platts to help the rescue work turned into a three-day cooking marathon. The couples stayed up until 3 a.m. the first night and were back at 8 a.m. the next day to keep cooking.

“The four of us basically stayed together three days and three nights,” said Nancy.

By the end of the three days, the restaurant’s kitchen had churned out pots of vegetable soup, 150 spaghetti dinners, 150 steak dinners with homemade gravy for mine rescuers, countless cakes for the fire department and more.

She and her husband kept cooking, Terry explained, because of a powerful mix of principle and simple understanding of how it feels to need help.

“Me and my husband, anytime anybody needs something, all he’s got to do is ask, because at one time, we’ve been in that spot,” she said. “That’s why we did it — because if it was my son, I’d want that.”

Preparing food became a way for the couples to use their own talents and resources and provide a universal source of comfort.

“I think it helps to keep the strength and nourishment up,” said Nancy.

Sometimes, food even offered a small taste of happiness in the middle of so much pain

“They said every time chocolate and cakes would go [to the emergency responders], those guys would just jump up,” said Nancy.

The restaurant itself also turned into a space for nourishment and comfort.

“During those days, it wasn’t a restaurant; it was a refuge. It was someplace neutral for people to sit down, relax, drink a cup of coffee,” said Nancy. “People just drifted in and out. We had an open door.”

Even from the restaurant windows, Nancy said, she watched the community come together — literally person to person.

“I don’t think anyone, even enemies, that week didn’t make amends somehow,” said Nancy. “I watched people stand out here on this corner and hold each other and cry. Some people hadn’t seen each other forever or spoken, and here they were holding each other.”

Still, the couples remember still reeling in shock even after they pulled pan after pan of biscuits from the oven.

“I think all in all, the first three days, I was numb,” said Jimmy. “I can’t remember even sleeping. I think we were all just going on adrenaline.”

Throughout the night, J.R. and Jimmy took time to reflect.

“We had our own long talks and sessions that night,” said J.R. “There were tears shed … I watched Greek [Jimmy] go through a lot of hell that night. A lot of those men he knew.”

Jimmy had worked with several of the miners, including Ricky Workman, Deward Scott, Gary Quarles and Benny Willingham.

“That’s what bothered me the most was that several of the guys there, I worked 17 years with them,” Jimmy said. “They get to be like family.”

The kitchen slowed after the first three days, and the Mitchells returned home — but not necessarily to the way their lives had been before.

“I pray every day, every night, that my son comes home safe,” said Terry.

 “We give thanks that our son’s still here,” J.R. added, “and our sorrows go out to the ones who aren’t.”

The Mitchells’ son, however, still hates to talk about April 5, according to Terry.

“He lost his friends and fellow workers; they’re family underground,” she explained.

Though warier than before, the Mitchells’ son remains committed to coal mining. He returned to work soon after at another nearby mine.

“I love it,” he said, but explained that as the year anniversary draws closer, he’s found himself thinking more and more about the explosion.

“To be honest with you, every day I go underground, it’s been on my mind,” he said. “I’ve been real jumpy, every noise.”

Still, as they look back to those three long days and nights a year ago, the Mitchells said they can find some satisfaction in having given all they had to people who needed them.

“What we did up there with Jimmy and Nancy at the restaurant, there was nothing we wanted in return,” said J.R. “Profit we didn’t, but we were paid ten fold.”

Text Only
Montcoal Mine Disaster
  • UBB report 3 Independent investigation says Upper Big Branch disaster was preventable

    A series of explosions that ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal just over a year ago, killing 29 miners and shocking the nation, were preventable, a report released Thursday stated.

    May 19, 2011 3 Photos

  • Families not surprised Massey was irresponsible

    For the father of one of the victims of the tragedy at Upper Big Branch, hearing investigators say the accident was preventable and largely due to ignoring important safety measures came as no surprise.

    May 19, 2011

  • UBB report provides insight into future of mine safety

    Following an independent investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion, investigators offered more than 50 suggestions for improving the safety of coal miners underground, and lawmakers across the state and nation have taken notice.

    May 19, 2011

  • MSHA investigation not complete, but mostly in line with independent panel's report

    The public received a few answers to questions about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion Thursday from an independent team, but federal investigators are still completing their investigation.

    May 19, 2011

  • 11 panel findings and suggestions for safety improvements

    As part of the independent investigation of the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, the authors of the report offered the following 11 findings that were accompanied by multiple suggestions for safety improvement.

    May 19, 2011

  • Council may choose outside 4 Beckley mayoral hopefuls

    With the tenure of long-time Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh ending on Dec. 31, members of the city’s Common Council plan to select an interim mayor at a special Jan. 2 meeting.

    December 13, 2013

  • W.Va. moves to unlicense Upper Big Branch foreman

    West Virginia mine safety officials are moving to revoke the license of an Upper Big Branch mine foreman they say didn’t turn on his methane detector when he was supposed to be checking for the explosive gas.
    The Charleston Gazette says a hearing for Jeremy Burghduff is set for May 15 before the state Coal Mine Safety Board of Appeals.

    April 12, 2012

  • UPDATED: Report also criticizes regulators in UBB mine blast

    The independent investigation that blames the deadliest U.S. coal mine explosion in decades on owner Massey Energy Co. also points out problems with how federal and state regulators policed the West Virginia coal mine where 29 died last year.

    May 19, 2011

  • UBB Scene UPDATED: Families seek justice for fatal UBB mine blast

    Relatives of the 29 men killed in the deadliest U.S. coal accident since 1970 said Thursday the findings of an independent probe confirm what they long suspected, saying Massey Energy Co. cared more about coal than workers’ safety, threatened to fire those who complained and let dangerous conditions build in an ill-fated mine.

    May 19, 2011 3 Photos

  • remember Remembering the 29

    A year after the tragic loss of 29 West Virginia coal miners at a Raleigh County mine, public officials gathered Tuesday evening with victims’ families, rescue workers and others affected by the tragedy.

    April 6, 2011 1 Photo

Helium debate
AP Video
Raw: 2 Shells Hit Fuel Tank at Gaza Power Plant Raw: Massive Explosions From Airstrikes in Gaza Giant Ketchup Bottle Water Tower Up for Sale Easier Nuclear Construction Promises Fall Short Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming UN Security Council Calls for Gaza Cease-fire Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide