The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 6, 2011

Families haunted by tragic blast

By Sarah Plummer
Register-Herald Reporter

— “It was a hard week,” was the phrase repeated by family members of the 29 miners who lost their lives on April 5, 2010, during the Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy.

From the crowd of mourners who gathered at the one-year anniversary memorial service Tuesday at Whitesville Elementary School, it was evident that the weeks have not gotten much easier along the Big Coal River.

Sherry Payne, who lost her brother Howard “Boone” Payne, pointed out that family members will struggle through the upcoming week, not just the one-year anniversary of the event itself.

“For many, the entire week is an anniversary because it was several days until we were notified that our loved ones were found,” she explained.

One family lost three close relatives during the explosion. Linda Davis lost two grandchildren and a son during the explosion.

“It never gets any easier,” Davis said. “You don’t sleep. Don’t eat. Don’t socialize. We lost three fine young men.”

Nikki Sparacino lost her boyfriend, Nicholas McCroskey, 26, at the time of the accident when she was four months pregnant. For her, her baby girl, Taylor, helps ease the loss.

“Having her has helped,” she said. “She looks a lot like him. She has been my motivation and kept me strong. I talk to her every day about him, show his pictures and his family is involved. He was a great man.”

Shelby King, McCroskey’s aunt, added “Taylor brought us joy through tears. Watching her grow up gives us something to look forward to. It is nice to have a little part of him in her.”

For Payne, seeing her brother’s four grandchildren, who were all under 4 at the time of the accident, makes her grieve that they will never know him.

“He loved them. Although they will never know him, they are being told stories about him,” she said.

Davis said that she depended heavily on her lost family members, and they each helped her in different ways.

“Timmy always did my yard work. We were going to do yard work that evening — had all the tools and things set out — but he never came home,” she said.

Now, she explained, she depends on God.

“I thank God that he brought two other family members out of the mine that day,” Davis said. “I depend on God to get me through this, and I still grieve. I grieve for the other 26 miners and the miners lost at Sago and all the others.”

Davis’ daughter, Pam Napper, still mourns her brother, son and nephew. Although she has been following news of the investigation, she does not find it to be the best comfort.

“The best thing has been talking to the miners they worked with,” Napper said. “They remind me of things and tell me good stories about them.”

Davis also said she does not expect the investigation to soothe her loss but hopes to learn the cause of the explosion. 

“I don’t hold anything against anybody,” she said. “I just can’t.”

Many of the family members mourning carried positive memories of their lost loved ones and touching moments from the tragedy into the service.

Alan Johnson recalls playing football with his stepfather, Joel Price.

“We would play on the same team a lot, but I will always remember our friendly rivalry when we played against each other,” he said.

He also said that he and his family have been thankful for the continuous prayers from the community.

Payne remembers the rescue workers and first responders and “all that they did to help our guys.”

She also recalls how close the 29 families became at the scene of the disaster.

“(Joe) Manchin sat with us for a while and, at first, thought we were one family, but there were four families supporting each other in our group,” she explained.

Many said they expect that the tragedy will turn into something positive.

Payne noted that she hopes “there is something learned from the accident.”

Judy Jones Peters lost her brother, Edward “Deano” Jones, last April, and said she hopes that safety is foremost on people’s minds across the country.

“I hope people will see a bigger picture,” stressed Peters. “There is a problem that is greater than the coal mining industry. Every industry should be a safe and positive work environment. No one should have to work under conditions where they work under fear. If there is anything the country should take out of this, it is that everyone needs to be an advocate for workplace safety. Not just these families.”

Johnson, who has worked in the mines himself, said he wants “to see things change for the better and see people learn from the situation.”

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com