By PAUL REED WARD AND CINDI LASH
January 03, 2006
With red-rimmed eyes, Bobby Bennett stood close to her family. Her father-in-law, Marty Bennett, was trapped in the Sago mine, where he worked operating a piece of equipment grinding out the coal.
A miner for 30 years, Bennett, 50, of Buckhannon, W.Va., was in the first crew to enter the mine around 6 a.m.
Marty Bennett's brother-in-law, Roger Perry, was in the second group of men, about eight minutes behind the first. The blast occurred between the two crews, forcing the second crew out of the mine. Perry's helmet was ripped from his head and torn to shreds. His eyes had metal shards in them and were swollen shut, his family said. He was blinded but no one knew if it was permanent.
Despite the severity of his injuries, Perry tried to go in to save Bennett.
Bennett's son, Russell, 30, works weekends as an electrician for the mining company and was at home when the explosion occurred. "He's an only child," said Bobby Bennett, her voice breaking. "He's his best friend."
Both father and son knew the danger they faced each day entering the mine. "They called each other every night to make sure they got home safe," said Bobby Bennett.
Despite the hazards, most who work in the mines here stick with it.
"Coal mining is probably one of the best jobs you can get around here," said Bobby Bennett.
Marty Bennett woke up at 3:30 each morning to go to his job.
"Marty's done it for years," said his brother-in-law Kevin Sharp. "That's all he's ever known."
It's the same for Fred Ware, another man trapped in the mine. He's been a miner for 37 years. His father was a miner and so was his before him.
Ware, 59, of Tallmansville, was severely injured in a mining accident in the late 1990s. He broke several ribs and punctured his lungs. He also had pins put in his ankles. Despite that, Ware returned to work in the mines, even while on crutches.
Joseph Richards, 13, last talked to the man he calls his dad Sunday night. Joseph wanted to watch a movie, but Ware wanted him to eat his dinner. Last night, Joseph was with his mother, friends and other family members speaking proudly about the work his father does.
In Upshur County, there are three operating deep mines including the one at Sago, which runs 24 hours a day. It was closed, though, Saturday and Sunday for the New Year's holiday.
Sago, an unincorporated community, has about 35 residents. Nearby Buckhannon, the largest town in the county, has a population of about 8,000.
"Everybody knows somebody who's in that mine," said Buckhannon Police Lt. Keith Rowan. "Everybody's your friend."
Monday night, in a thick, eerie fog that enveloped the area, at least eight members of the family of trapped miner Terry Helms, of Newburg, W.Va., gathered at an intersection near the mine entrance.
"I'm standing here until my brother comes out of that mine. We all are," said Judy Shackleford, 64. "We're not going home without him."
Helms' daughter, Amber, 22, was in the middle of moving from Moundsville to Morgantown, W.Va., when she got word of the explosion from relatives.
She said her father, who has worked in the mines all his life, was a "fire boss" - who enters the mine early to check for dangerous gases. The role required him to start work at 3 a.m. - three hours in advance of his regular 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift.
Helms family members from as far away as South Carolina were rushing to the scene last night.
Anna McCloy, 25, whose husband, Randal McCloy Jr., 26, of Simpson, W.Va., was trapped in the mine, said she and her husband observed a daily ritual when he left for work in the predawn hours Monday.
The couple, who have a 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, say goodbye, and she watches her husband walk to his car. Before he leaves each day, he tells her: "God's always with you."
Randal McCloy's mother and mother-in-law also were keeping vigil last night in a soft drizzle outside the church.
McCloy's mother, Tambra Flint, said he had been taking electrical classes in hope of a career change.
"He was looking to get out," she said grimly. "But not soon enough."
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