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Three hours in the dark

The West Virginia church across the valley from the mine erupted twice early Wednesday. In between, praise for miracles flowed easily.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published January 9, 2006


[AP photos]
Crystina Neeling and Darlene Groves, right, relatives of miner Jerry Groves, celebrate after the initial report that 12 miners were rescued.
Three hours after the false report, unidentified family members leave Sago Baptist Church upon learning the truth.

SAGO, W.Va. - No one could say who started it. All they knew was that someone in the crowd at the Sago Baptist Church that night hollered, "There's 12 of 'em alive!"

For 41 hours, since an explosion early Monday trapped 13 miners underground, the church had been a refuge for relatives, friends and anyone else in search of a piece of fried chicken or the latest news. Now, as Tuesday night gave way to Wednesday morning, the small white chapel became a place of wild imaginings and ecstatic prayer.

From midnight to 3 a.m., people from this hilly patch of West Virginia thought about what they would say and do when the miners stood in front of them. They made plans and promises. They worshiped a God who worked miracles and answered prayers.

"They were happy like winning a million dollars," said John Casto, 46, a local carpenter. "They were all praising the Lord."

The church sits across the valley from the mine. A creek flows fast through the valley, where they baptize people. The grass is yellow, the water is cold and the mud is black with coal dust.

The little church was lucky to draw 80 people on a Sunday. After the explosion, hundreds poured in. They slept on the green cushioned pews and on the carpet under the pews, which muddied as people tramped in to pray. A woven depiction of the Last Supper hung over the altar, and volunteers kept 13 tea lights burning.

"Seems like that comforted them," said Josephine Linger, 60, the church clerk.

They took little comfort from the news rising out of the mine. On Tuesday, tests found high levels of carbon monoxide underground. In the church, spirits flagged.

That night, mine officials announced that one man was dead, but they didn't say who. People guessed it was Terry Helms because of where the body was found, said Ed McDaniels, a pastor at Christian Fellowship Church in Tennerton who was at Sago Baptist that night. Helms, 50, was the fire boss, the one who checked equipment and air quality before the men descended more than 2 miles into the ground.

Inside the church was stifling, people were sweating. Sometime before midnight, McDaniels stood out front, where they had lit fires. A misty rain fell. A man next to him saw trucks coming fast down the hill from the mine.

"He said, "There's good news coming there,"' McDaniels said. The man figured they wouldn't race to bring bad news.

A few minutes later, the church erupted. The governor took off running down the hallway to see what was happening. People started pulling the ropes that rang the bells. Up and down the road, cruisers' sirens screamed and horns blared.

In the church, someone said, "There's still miracles!" One woman said, "Thank you, Jesus!" over and over.

People hugged people they didn't know well enough to hug. They shouted and cried and burst outside. McDaniels started singing How Great Thou Art , and the lights and cameras came on, and suddenly they were on TV.

"They're home!" McDaniels said on CNN. "Thank God! They made it here!"

They sang Amazing Grace and Victory in Jesus .

In the sanctuary, people fell on their knees and accepted Christ. Some said 11 were saved that night, some said six. A 10-year-old boy, the son of one of the miners, hugged McDaniels. He was crying. He said, "See, I told you he was gonna come out of there!"

John Casto sought out the people he knew who had relatives in the mine. "I went to Judy Bennett, Marty Bennett's wife. He was under the hill. I said, "Boy, God's good, ain't he?' and she said, "Yeah, he sure is."'

He found the brother of one of the miners. "They had words and didn't talk to each other," Casto said. "He said, "If he comes out, I'm gonna grab him and hug him and tell him I love him."'

A man got onstage with a microphone.

"He said, "The emergency squad is gonna go get your loved ones now, and we're gonna feed 'em, because you know they must be hungry,"' Casto said. "He said, "It's gonna be Christmas all over again,' and he laid the mike down and he walked off."

In the kitchen, the women brewed fresh pots of coffee and boiled hot chocolate. They gathered 40 blankets to keep the miners warm. They arranged tables and fixed juice, sandwiches and pepperoni rolls.

"I saw them cleaning off the tables and mopping the floors and they said, "The people are gonna come here,"' McDaniels said. "They said, "They're gonna feed them first.' I began to process that. I said, "That ain't gonna happen."'

After a while, McDaniels' cell phone rang. The person on the other end, who McDaniels would not name, said, "Pastor, I want you to know this. The news is coming there shortly. I don't know what you're going to do with this, but I wanted you to know."

McDaniels found a Red Cross worker.

"I told her, and it broke her heart," he said. "I probably knew 30 or 40 minutes prior, so I saw the vehicles coming down the road and I got all the pastors together. I said, "I don't want you to show emotion. They're gonna come in here and tell us there's 12 dead and one alive."'

He didn't tell the rest of the people waiting. He didn't tell the relatives of the miner whose funeral he would officiate on Sunday.

"No way. Can you imagine what would have happened?" he said. "They'd have hung me. I wasn't the one to bear that news."

People gathered on the lawn in front of the church.

"Covered up in covers, in blankets, daughters, maybe, and granddaughters, waiting for their loved ones to come up," Casto said. "They just stayed out there and watched toward the mine. They wouldn't come in. ...

"The black vehicles were coming, and we thought they were in those vehicles, and everyone went back in the church. The governor got in there and the mine officials, and every time the door opened on the side of the church, they would look to see if it was one of their dads.

"One of the mine officials said, "I'm sorry I'm late.' He said, "I've not lied to you yet and I'm not gonna lie. We found one man alive.'

"One boy got a little upset and said, "What do you mean one alive? What about the others?' He said, "What do you mean they're dead, when you said they were coming through the door here directly?'

"Everybody went berserk. Pastor said, "We need to look toward God for comfort."'

From the crowd, someone shouted: "What the hell do you mean? What can God do for us now?"

"When they said that 12 were dead, praise went to hate," Casto said. "I never seen happiness turn to sorrow so quick in my life."

Ben Hatfield, chief executive of International Coal Group, which owns the mine, left the church under police guard.

People "got angry," McDaniels said. "They got mad at Mr. Hatfield, at God. Not all. Some took it as a bitter pill."

People swore at officials. They said, "G--d--- you" in the church. One man was escorted out, but no one fought. Some kept praying.

McDaniels said the men had dual citizenship here and in the afterlife. But he believed that, given a choice, most people would pick this world over heaven.

"If you have a good day, thank God for that day," he said later. "Because tomorrow the mine may bust on you."

By dawn, the church was empty.

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Vanessa Gezari can be reached at 727 893-8803 or vgezari@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 9, 2006, 00:57:08]


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