The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 6, 2011

Community gathers to remember, honor coal mine disaster victims

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

— Many arrived in black T-shirts bearing the names of all 29.

For some, the attire of the day was accented by stripes of varying hues, resembling the safety patches worn by the underground coal miner.

All came to First Christian Church of Beckley with a heavy heart, burdened one year to the day by the nightmare of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal.

For it was there that a balmy spring afternoon turned into a hellish nightmare, an explosion that came without warning, like a thief in the night, robbing families of their loved ones.

In all, 29 workmen on the Performance Coal Co. mine shift perished when the horrific blast rattled the huge mine.

Every pew was packed Tuesday for a poignant, tasteful service, orchestrated by Mick Bates, representing the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce.

Coinciding with other churches in the region, a ringer in the balcony tolled the bell 29 times, while white, pillar candles representing each victim were lit.

Many in the packed pews wept unabashedly as each bell was rung and a fresh candle awakened with its flame.

In his invocation, Pastor Don Snyder encouraged the grieving to turn toward Jesus with the promise to dwell in His kingdom forever.

Raleigh County Commission President John Aliff read Psalm 30, using the Scriptures to help ease the pain of losing family and friends in the worst mining accident in four decades.

“Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou by helper.

“Thou has turned for me mourning into dancing; thou has put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.”

Andrea Sullivan led the congregation in a time-honored worship song, “Amazing Grace,” then performed a Bill Withers tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” with slightly altered lyrics to fit the occasion.

“Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone .. and this house just ain’t no home any time he goes away,” she intoned.

In a closing touch, Sullivan invited attendees to join her in another Withers favorite, “Lean On Me,” accompanied by John Sellards on the piano.

Withers is no stranger to the coal industry, having spent part of his childhood in Slab Fork, once a bustling mining community just beyond Sophia.

Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh read a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, with particular emphasis on Jesus’ words in the fourth verse, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

Michelle Morris, of Beckley, said the service was in good taste and respectful of the fallen miners.

She and other relatives attended to pay honor to her cousin, Christopher Bell, one of the victims.

“It’s grievous for the whole family,” she said.

“The whole family has gathered. It’s a time of togetherness. We’ve grown stronger and closer for the last year because of this. But today is going to be a rough day. Now, we have his memory. We’ll get through it.

“We’re doing all right now,” she said.

“We’re just talking about the good memories we have with him and of him. He has four children. We see a lot of him in them.”

Bell’s aunt, Susan McGinnis, also of Beckley, was impressed with the 35-minute service.

“It was very moving,” she said. “It was great.”

One of those paying respects was Donnie Snyder, who walked out of the Massey Energy subsidiary just five weeks before the fatal explosion, unwilling to continue working in what he considered unsafe working conditions.

“They had me run my buggy through 5 feet of water,” he explained. “To me, that was an unsafe condition.”

No longer associated with the mining industry, Snyder said he intends to open a barbershop at the Crossroads Mall.

On one side of the church stood an artist’s rendition of what a special plaque honoring the 29 will look like when it is placed on the courthouse lawn.

As the service closed, Father Joshua Stevens encouraged the bereaved to turn to the Lord to find “a refuge and strength.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com